By October 15, 2008 3 Comments Read More →

Real World, Teen Fiction

The Skin I'm In Cover

Teen novels can be bleak and deal with very complex, heavy issues. Often that’s what teens are looking for–a reflection of the real, adult issues that many of them face.

This week I read two popular teen novels for an upcoming training with our Teen Librarians. I read a fair amount of teen fiction, but I tend to gravitate to the lighter, funnier fare; I feel as though I get plenty of bleak in my adult fiction reading.

But every week I get asked by teens to help them find books about abuse, drugs and gangs. Urban fiction is popular in my library, so popular it’s rarely on the shelves, but what these teens are looking for, while it incorporates Urban fiction, is a little different. They are looking for the hard-luck and cruel-world stories, the ripped-from-the-headline stories of rape, incest, poverty and violence, and, ultimately, survival.

Books like Sapphire’s Push or Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever fly off the shelves. Not to mention Dave Pelzer’s memoir, A Child Called It.

So in reading Sharon G. Flake’s The Skin I’m In and Connie Porter’s Imani All Mine, I got to thinking about what these stories say and why they connect for teens.

The Skin I’m In won the Coretta Scott King award in 1999 and is still going strong. Maleeka Madison is 13, living with her single mom who has to make her clothes after her father died. Maleeka befriends the tough Alpha girl, Char, who brings Maleeka presentable clothes; in exchange, Maleeka does Char’s homework, and feels somewhat protected. But Maleeka is still the target of some intense harrassment from other students about the color of her skin. Again and again, Maleeka’s self-esteem is battered and bruised. When a new teacher comes in to shake things up, Maleeka finds herself in deep trouble.

Flake depicts a world in which kids grow up in neighborhoods with sketchy streets, where kids take care of their parents and are, in many ways, on their own. But Maleeka’s is a hopeful story, a story of triumph above peer pressure, a story of learning to love and stand up for yourself.

Connie Porter’s Imani All Mine is much darker, but powerful all the same. Tasha becomes the mother of Imani at 14. She was raped, but doesn’t even tell her mother, who repeatedly rebukes her for being a “ho.” Tasha is a good student, raised by a single mom who was also a teenage mother, but who isn’t emotionally available to her daughter. It’s a world where gun shots are heard routinely and kids have to avoid drug dealers and gang initiations on the way to the bus stop. Tasha loves her daughter with all of her heart, and when she looks at her daughter is determined to see only herself, not the boy who claimed her innocence. Imani, which means faith, is Tasha’s rock, but Tasha still has a lot of growing up to do, and a deck stacked against her. Imani All Mine has a heartwrenching ending, which makes it feel all the more real.

Why are these two books so popular? For one, they examine racism, poverty, violence and love from the eyes of teens, as many teens experience it. But the reading habits, tastes and moods of teens are as complex as those of adults–they read to learn, to feel less alone and to be entertained. Some read the see their worlds reflected, others to be transported from the safety of their own.



About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

3 Comments on "Real World, Teen Fiction"

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  1.' Dave Pelzer says:

    I sincerely question why A Child Called It has such an audience in our society. What is it about us that revels in detailed violence?

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