Away From the Canon, Teen Books Hit Home

En Español

“Bitch.” “Pimp.” “Candy Licker.” “Snitch.” A few of the more lurid titles offered up by Mission High School students when asked what they were reading outside of class.

While fantasy, spearheaded by the Twilight series, remains in high demand at school libraries, many students are reading novels that focus on more harrowing issues — head-on collisions with alcoholic, abusive parents, hard drug use and gang violence.  It’s hardly diversionary fare, particularly for teenagers facing those realities.

“These kids know about a lot of awful stuff,” said Kathleen Cecil, who teaches 10th grade English at Mission High School. “So if they’re not twilightreaderreading about awful stuff, they think it’s not real.”

Typical of teen reading fare, “Push” by Sapphire portrays a lone 16-year-old girl navigating an oppressive, dysfunctional home; a blotted world of incest, violence, pregnancy, obesity, AIDS and illiteracy.  The teenager’s home life and difficulties in school impel her to retreat into daydream as one of her only havens.

Written in the teen’s voice, it begins: “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded….”

Made into the movie “Precious,” which opened last week, the book is popular at Mission High School.

So too is “A Child Called ‘It,’” a memoir about a survivor of child abuse and the deep emotional trauma left by an alcoholic, sadistic mother and a detached father. It’s the second most checked out book, according to Mission High School librarian Matt McDonell.

The memoir, set in Daly City, is also popular at John O’Connell High School on Folsom Street near 20th Street. Book reports, available in the library there, show connections students made with the subject.

“This reminds of the way my father can be,” one student wrote. “He acts like he don’t care about my siblings and me…. It helps me understand how he feel.”

McDonell wasn’t surprised. “As soon as the bell rings, they’re out in the street and facing some of those same issues.”

The librarian explained that such books gain popularity through word-of-mouth.

While some pegged as street lit or ghetto fiction are read mostly by African-American females, darker subject matters resonate across ethnic and gender lines.

“If we get stuff in class and it’s happy, no one reads it,” said Anusuya Mukherjee, a senior at Mission High School. “We were assigned a book about a hero, ‘Beowolf.’ No one wanted to read it. But the same story, when it came from the villain’s point of view (‘Grendel’), everyone wanted to read it.”

Much popular contemporary fiction maps out similar terrain.

Bitch,” by Deja King, tells the story of a girl who goes from “Project Chick to Hood Queen” using her “beauty, body and street-savvy brains.” She dates a drug kingpin then turns on him, eventually facing fallout from her hustling.

Janisa McConico, a junior at Mission High School, summed it up more succinctly: “It’s a sex book.”

Her classmate, Devon, called “Snitch,” by Allison van Diepen—a book about gang-permeated culture in Los Angeles — the “best book ever.”

“It’s about your people,” he jokingly shouted to his Latino friend. “The girl doesn’t want to become a Crip. But she gets jumped in. Then she snitches and gets shot up. That’s the end.”

Devon said he’s now reading “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” by Iceberg Slim, which is a brutal memoir of life as a pimp in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

“I got this from my cousin,” he said. “He’s in county jail and he was reading it.”

Mostly blank stares met any further attempt to understand why these books appealed — a school bell or passing friend providing an escape from deeper reflection.  But clearly there is some personal connection to the issues protagonists face and the portrayal of street life.

teenreadersss“It’s about drama,” said Shavon Alexander, as Cecil’s class was about to begin. “High school drama. I like books I can relate to. Not fantasy or that boring stuff. Drama, I can relate to.”

But concerned parents, teachers and cultural custodians argue that much of that drama is exaggerated or glorified to a detrimental degree.

Vivian Johnson, a former social worker and now a professor of education at Marygrove College in Detroit specializing in urban adolescent literature, spoke of her earlier experience teaching writing in inner city schools in a recent phone interview.

“Even a story starting with a cute little bunny ended with a dead body floating in the river,” she said of writing exercises she gave her students. “But only one or two of them had seen a dead body. It was mostly media-based.”

“If you’re just looking at the darkness, then your experience might become that,” she added. “But there’s another side. I want them to see a balance in their life … You can go through the urban experience without being sucked in.”

Johnson said most of these novels fall in between glorification and what’s really going on. In her classroom, she made a compromise with students: “They read classics as long as they could read ‘trash’ after.”

But the vicarious connection is a prime appeal of literature, and adolescents have long been drawn to taboo subjects.

Johnson recalled the long-gone enticement of reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it had the word “hell” in it.

“Coming-of-age novels are, in their time, often viewed as outrageous — as somehow pushing the envelope — whether it’s because of dark, downer content, or sex, or graphicness, or whatever,” said Jesse Nathan, managing editor of The Best American Nonrequired Reading series, a yearly anthology that Bay Area high school students help compile. “Actually, whatever young people like to read is usually viewed by the olders as wrong somehow.”

“I don’t think young people today are that much different than young people ever,” he continued. “The kids I know read lots, love books. They’re confused, intelligent, figuring out the world, distracted, fickle in their likes and dislikes … that’s more the nature of young people than the nature of this particular generation.”

One Comment

  1. Vivian Johnson

    This great information about what adolescents are reading. I will add that the term “trash” was coined by some of my students to categorize their reading choices. I continue to share literature that might be considered on the edge, but believe it requires some discussion. I have read “PUSH” aloud to undergraduate and graduate students for years, self-censored of course, to underscore the power of literacy in the hands of a dedicated teacher. I believe students need a balance to broaden their perspectives. Literature is, as Dr. Sims-Bishop writes, both a mirror and a window. Literature provided a window to a world beyond childhood poverty and other challenges. Because I glimpsed a world beyond the life I lived, I knew there was hope.

    Dr. Vivian Johnson

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