What Makes a Good YA Urban Novel?

Poverty. Violence. Racism. Gangs. Drugs. Crime. When people think of the inner city, these are the issues that tend to come to mind — the reasons many avoid urban areas altogether and lock their car doors should they happen to take a wrong turn and end up in a “bad” neighborhood. Unfortunately, these are not always idle stereotypes; the aforementioned afflictions do plague many urban neighborhoods.

But at the same time, a city is more than just its crime rate. Real people live in these places and exist beyond the headlines of the evening news. Real children play in these streets and go to schools in these communities. Urban literature for young adults puts human faces to the lives behind the statistics, reminding teen readers — both those of whom live in the inner city and those who don’t — that people are people above and beyond their zip codes and the constraints by which society attempts to define them.

Although “urban” often serves as a euphemism for African American or Hispanic, another defining feature of the genre, besides the setting, has less to do with the race of the characters and more to do with the nature of the primary conflict. It’s true that many of the characters in these books belong to one (or both) of these ethnic groups. However, urban problems transcend race in the same way that the African American or Hispanic experience is much wider than the inner city.

Take, for example, Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade books (Make Lemonade, 1993; True Believer, 2001; and This Full House, 2009). The main characters in these verse novels — teenagers LaVaughn and Jolly, a young mom for whom LaVaughn babysits — are never identified by race. It’s up to readers to form their own pictures of the characters in their minds — and to question the assumptions they make as they are doing so. In these books it’s the characters’ struggles and relationships, not their ethnicities, that are the focus.

What makes good YA urban literature is not so different from what distinguishes the best YA realistic fiction. However, because many readers tend to approach urban stories expecting gangs, shootings, drugs, and such, there are a few ways that good authors skillfully avoid the traps that could drag their stories down into melodrama and stereotype.

First, it is vital that the author respect and accurately depict the world in which the characters exist. Good authors do not shy away from the negative aspects, but they also evoke a genuine affection for the community. It is not just some crushingly depressing death trap that their characters are trying to escape; the author recognizes that the setting is undeniably part of the characters. It is where they grew up and it is where the people they love live. It can be ugly and tragic, but beauty can be found in those same streets and in the people of the community.

A prime example can be found in Sandra Cisneros’s classic The House on Mango Street (1984). Esperanza’s family has just moved into their own house in a Latino section of Chicago, but it’s far from what she had expected. At the same time that Esperanza is coming to understand her family’s poverty, her growing awareness of her nascent sexuality leads to a variety of experiences and observations around her neighborhood. In mesmerizing language that hits on everything from junk stores and dilapidated houses to hair styles and Esperanza’s father crying in the middle of the night, Cisneros achieves a complex and profound portrait of Esperanza’s world.

Another book that perfectly captures the urban setting is Walter Dean Myers’s short story collection 145th Street (2000), in which humor and love are juxtaposed with the unpredictable danger that can come with living in Harlem. As the opening chapter states, “That’s what 145th Street is like. Something funny happens…and then something bad happens. It’s almost as if the block is reminding itself that life is hard, and you have to take it seriously.” For example, “Kitty and Mack: A Love Story” begins with love’s transformative effect upon Mack, an arrogant baseball star. But after a drive-by irreparably damages one of his legs, the narrative transforms into a serious exploration of commitment and perseverance. Well-written and poignant, Myers’s collection reads like James Baldwin for young people, capturing joy and sadness in the same breath.

Matt de la Peña’s novel Ball Don’t Lie (2005) also shows an understanding of the complex relationship between the main character, a foster child known as Sticky, and his inner-city surroundings. The story follows Sticky during an eventful day at the Venice Beach rec center, where he regularly hones his formidable basketball skills. The heart of the narrative focuses on Sticky’s search for self-worth. Flashbacks detail his journey through the foster-care system and how he met his girlfriend, one of the only people whom he feels has ever truly cared for him. In addition to including some of the best descriptions of street ball in YA literature, the novel also shows how the rec center court — effectively Sticky’s true home — perfectly embodies the affection for one’s community despite the possibility of danger.

Another element of good YA urban literature is that the narrative focuses on how the characters develop as a result of facing the problems they encounter in the inner city and doesn’t simply harp on the problems themselves. These teenagers are ultimately wrestling with the same things young adults everywhere wrestle with — forming identity and understanding the world. However, they often have to figure things out in an environment in which the stakes are higher and harsh truths come sooner than they might in the suburbs.

Walter Dean Myers’s Monster (1999) uses a screenplay and journal format to allow Harlem teen Steve to tell his story from prison as he awaits trial for a drugstore robbery and murder. The book follows the courtroom drama as details of the crime unfold, but the narrative focuses on Steve’s struggle to understand and form his identity in the light of the mistakes he’s made and the labels society had given him even before his arrest.

Love Maia’s debut novel DJ Rising (2012) also draws readers in through its memorable characters. While living with his heroin-addicted mother and her boyfriend of the moment, biracial Marley tries to maintain his scholarship to an elite boarding school, work full-time, and pursue his dream of becoming a professional DJ. With electric descriptions of Marley’s music and poignant plot development, Maia creates a protagonist for whom readers will root every step of the way.

Another recent strong example of a character-driven YA urban novel is Lynn Joseph’s Flowers in the Sky (2013). Nina must leave her poor but pastoral home in the Dominican Republic when her mother decides Nina would have a better life with her brother in New York City. The reality of her new situation is far from her mother’s idealization, and Nina must learn to adapt to her unfamiliar environment while trying to figure out why her brother seems so different and what might be going on with a mysterious boy she meets.

Accessibility is key with urban fiction, and the Bluford High series, written primarily by Anne Schraff and Paul Langan, is perennially popular among urban teens. Set at a fictional high school in California, the books follow various characters as they deal with typical urban problems, such as an absentee father in Lost and Found (2001), violence in The Bully (2002), or losing someone to gangs in Brothers in Arms (2004). In these high-interest/ low-level texts, character development relies heavily on exposition, and the writing style leaves much to be desired, but the dramatic action is engaging, and the characters are highly relatable for many urban teens. Characters pop in and out of one another’s stories, creating a familiar world easily revisit-able. (As an added bonus, Townsend Press sells each book for $1 on its website, townsendpress.com)

In addition to well-conceived characters, good YA urban literature tells their stories using an authentic voice. It’s hard to define exactly what makes a voice “real,” but when it’s off , it rings as false as an adult trying too hard to be cool. The skilled use of vernacular, for instance, often results in genuine language that allows readers to trust the characters and see themselves or people they know in their words. Coe Booth crafts such a narrative voice in the Bronx tale of Tyrell (2006). Unable to pay rent, Tyrell and his family move to a roach-infested motel while they wait for something better. Tyrell is a normal teenage boy struggling to make his relationship with his girlfriend work, but with an incarcerated father and an incorrigibly irresponsible mother, his life is complicated by the responsibility of caring for his little brother. Continuing Tyrell’s story, Bronxwood (2011) picks up with the release of his father from jail and their ensuing conflicts. Tyrell’s gritty voice in both books powerfully captures the frustration and pain of growing up too quickly.

Something like Hope (2010) by Shawn Goodman is another urban novel with a strong and intense voice. Seventeen-year-old Shavonne, laden with traumatic childhood experiences, has been in an all-girls’ juvenile detention facility for several years, living in a blur of anger and abuse. But with the help of a new therapist, Shavonne starts the difficult process of working through her guilt and pain. As the Horn Book Magazine review says, “Goodman’s portrait of a life in crisis is heart- and mind- and gut-wrenching.”

The First Part Last (2003) by Angela Johnson explores the issue of teen pregnancy from the male perspective. With chapters alternating between the past and the present, the novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Bobby raising his daughter mostly by himself. Even though at times the words seem too poetic for a boy Bobby’s age, his narration realistically reveals his struggle to let go of a carefree teenage life and accept the responsibility and love required of fatherhood.

There are a number of notable verse novels that successfully use poetry to give their urban characters the voice and space to work through their emotions. Keesha’s House (2003) by Helen Frost employs sestinas and sonnets to give voice to seven teens facing a variety of problems. Their stories connect as they each find refuge by staying in “Keesha’s House” and they end up helping one another. Similarly, the “Open Mike Fridays” of Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade (2002) allows a class of students to use slam poetry to express themselves, and in doing so, work through their issues. Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion (2003) focuses on a single character, Lonnie, whose school assignment to write in a variety of poetic forms helps him come to terms with the loss of his parents and his separation from his sister.

Lastly, good YA urban literature speaks for itself; it is not didactic. Readers learn about the world and explore serious questions alongside the characters without a preachy narrator or adult to moralize along the way. The books detailed above confront intense subject matter as a fact of inner-city life, but they do not do so gratuitously and they do not glorify the destructive lifestyles they may depict. These are honest representations of the harsh environments urban teens inhabit. Characters in the best YA urban literature grow and progress in their understanding of themselves and the world, leading to endings that are usually hopeful — but not always happy.

Good YA Urban Novels

Bronxwood (Push/Scholastic, 2011) by Coe Booth

Tyrell (Push/Scholastic, 2006) by Coe Booth

The House on Mango Street (Arte Público, 1984) by Sandra Cisneros

Ball Don’t Lie (Delacorte, 2005) by Matt de la Peña

Keesha’s House (Foster/Farrar, 2003) by Helen Frost

Something like Hope (Delacorte, 2010) by Shawn Goodman

Bronx Masquerade (Dial, 2002) by Nikki Grimes

The First Part Last (Simon, 2003) by Angela Johnson

Flowers in the Sky (HarperTeen, 2013) by Lynn Joseph

Brothers in Arms [Bluford High] (Townsend, 2004) by Paul Langan and Ben Alirez

The Bully [Bluford High] (Townsend, 2002) by Paul Langan

DJ Rising (Little, Brown, 2012) by Love Maia

145th Street: Short Stories (Delacorte, 2000) by Walter Dean Myers

Monster (HarperCollins, 1999) by Walter Dean Myers

Lost and Found [Bluford High] (Townsend, 2001) by Anne Schraff

Make Lemonade (Holt, 1993) by Virginia Euwer Wolff

This Full House (Bowen/HarperTeen, 2009) by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer (Atheneum, 2001) by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Locomotion (Putnam, 2003) by Jacqueline Woodson

From the November/December 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay teaches high school English at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia and is a regular reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes (Merit Press, Oct 2015).
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James Madison

Very good information, too often we're consumed with the worst of the worst as it relates to urban novels. The fact is, its not always that bad. I would add Maxx Kilbourne's novel "ELLE" to the list. https://www.amazon.com/ELLE-story-Evelyn-Louise-Lace-ebook/dp/B07M75SMVG www.maxkbooks.com

Posted : Mar 06, 2019 05:07

Kamichi Jackson

Great article! I've only heard of a couple of these books. Can't wait to pick up two or three for my personal bookshelf.

Posted : Jan 21, 2014 04:31


Just got around to reading that--what a great piece. I teach at an all boys school and many of them have "all these feelings [they] didn't know what to do with." While we're on the subject, here's another great article on YA lit from Sherman Alexie in the WSJ: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/

Posted : Nov 14, 2013 05:15

Katie Bircher

Matt de la Peña just wrote a piece for NPR about the power of reading and writing for so-called "tough teens": http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/11/11/243960103/a-reluctant-reader-turns-ya-author-for-tough-teens

Posted : Nov 12, 2013 08:01



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