I teach freshman English at an alternative school just outside of Houston, Texas. My students are all at-risk academically, and most come from unstable home lives. Many of them come from homes where friends or family members are in gangs, are “locked up,” are drug abusers, or are never home because they’re working two jobs to make ends meet.
According to a definition from the Cincinnati Library, “Urban fiction is a genre portraying African American, or sometimes Latino, characters on the gritty streets of the city where their lives are circumscribed by racism, drugs, violence, and sex.” When my students first enter my class, and I tell them that we’re going to read for the first 10 minutes of class every day, I am met with huge groans. However, we all know that hooking a student with the right book is all it takes to hook them as a reader. Many of my students have become readers — readers of science fiction, historical fiction, dystopia, etc. — because I was able to hook them with an urban fiction book that he or she could relate to.
Here are the top 10 urban fiction books that my students love (links take you to Goodreads):
The Bluford series by various authors
The Bluford series has about 20 books, each with varying characters, that all take place at Bluford High. Each of the books is approximately 150 pages, so this is a great place for students who don’t yet see themselves as readers to start. The Bluford website also has 18 of the books as free audiobooks , so students can read their own book and follow along with the audio.
Street Pharm and Snitch and by Allison van Diepen
After my librarian book talked these two books, there was a waiting list a mile long for one copy we had of each. We now have about 5 copies of each in the library, and I have 1 copy of each in my classroom. I love that Allison is a high school English teacher who wrote a book for her students to connect with.
Dopesick by Walter Dean Myers
While hiding out for allegedly shooting a cop during an under-cover drug deal, Lil J meets a mysterious stranger, Kelly, who has a TV and a remote that can rewind to show different parts of Lil J’s life. Kelly keeps asking him, “If you could do it all over again, and change something, what would it be?” Time and again, this question to Lil J has been powerful because it causes my students to question the same thing about themselves.
If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser
This book saved one of my students lives. It seems a bit dramatic to say, but it’s true. He chose this on his own while we were at the library, and he absolutely devoured it. He was DeShawn, a young man who wants to stay clear of the gang life that controls his neighborhood and apartment complex. My student was able to experience DeShawn’s story — resisting, giving into, and consequences of the gang life — without having to go through it himself. After reading the book, my student handed it to me, asked me to read it, and said, “I will never be DeShawn.”
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
There are plenty of book from the point-of-view of a teen mom, but it’s rare to find a story that tells the story of the teen dad. The First Part Last is a small, yet powerful, book, and every student who reads it, parent or not, loves it. A teacher had to use my room during benchmark testing, and one of his students picked this book “because it’s short.” Before leaving my room, she asked to check it out, saying, “I need to finish this.”
My students love the mix of prose and poetry throughout Bronx Masquerade. While Tyrell is the main narrator, chapters focus on different students in the class as we learn more about them through the Open Mike poetry time that their teacher started. This book actually inspired some students to share poetry that they had written.
Perfect Chemistry, Rules of Attraction, and Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles
Although it’s a tough sell at first (girly covers anyone?), my boys love this series as much as the girls. My students are forever asking, “When are the movies coming out?!” The series follows the Fuentes brothers, and while it’s best to start with the first book, Perfect Chemistry, some students have started with Rules of Attraction or Chain Reaction and were able to follow along just fine.
Kendra by Coe Booth
This book hits home with quite a few of my students. Some are in Kendra’s shoes: they’re being raised by a grandparent, aunt, or uncle because their own mom or dad is out of the picture. Others can relate to Renee: they themselves are young teen parents, some who try to juggle school with parenthood, some who have parents who now shoulder all the responsibility. If you know students are in these situations, this is a great book to hand them.
The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Sitomer
I was so excited when I met Alan Sitomer at NCTE and received a signed copy of The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez. I have 3 girls reading this book right now, and 3 more who are on the waiting list. Different aspects of the story touch different readers, and it is overall such a great story. I shared with Alan that my students are always surprised that it’s written by a “white dude” because the voice of Sonia is so strong!
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Jennifer Fountain is a mom of 3, wife of 1, and teacher of many. She lives with her family just outside of Houston, home of her poor, poor Houston Astros. After evenings of Star Wars battles against the ferocious My Little Ponies who are rescued by Mickey and friends, you can find her curled up on the couch with a good book. She also tweets at @jennann516 and blogs at http://fountainreflections.wordpress.com.