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Give ‘Em What They Want! Or, Readers’ Advisory and Urban Teens

Every Friday morning a big white van pulls up outside my library.  A ragtag group of guys climbs out and they make their way into the library and head straight for my desk.  “You got any drug books?”

This is a question I have come to expect each week, and it is readers advisory that I take great pride in providing.  The boys, predominantly white and Latino, are from a nearby treatment center.  Most are there for drug use, but some are recovering from attempted suicide.  While they may look scary to unsuspecting staff and patrons, the boys are unfailingly pleasant and polite and they are usually the highlight of my week.  There’s nothing more rewarding than putting a book in the hands of a teenage guy and have them say, “This looks SICK!  Thanks!”

I share this story for two reasons.  The first is that readers advisory for inner city teens can sometimes be a challenge for even the most ardent supporters of intellectual freedom.   Urban teens tend to grow up a little faster than their suburban and rural counterparts and are often ready for more mature material earlier than adults are comfortable with.   I’ll admit that I am always slightly relieved to find Candy Licker missing from the shelves when requested by 7th grade girls, but I was truly surprised when I shared a list of titles about drug use and addiction and received this response from a colleague:  “It’s sad that we need this kind of a list.”  Really? Sad? I loved books about drugs and drug addicts when I was a teen and I would have loved any librarian who gave me more of them because I couldn’t find enough on my own.   And, while I obviously wish that we did not have drug addicted teens, the fact remains that we do.   Providing books that reflect the experiences of those teens shows that we listen to and respect their reading choices.

The second reason is that, while I’m certain the majority of librarians serving inner city teens know their relevant subjects and have a solid repertoire of “can’t miss” suggestions, it never hurts to constantly be on the lookout for fresh titles.  I always look forward to the yearly Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers because I know there will be a great selection of edgy titles for me to draw from.  The 2011 Top Ten list alone has titles on tattoos (The Tattoo Chronicles by Kat Von D), gangs (Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Randy DuBurke)  and sex (Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex and Safety by Nikki Hasler).  Perfect for hooking even the most reluctant of urban teen readers!


  1. Jessica Pryde Jessica Pryde

    This is sort 0f funny to read just an hour after getting the question of “Where are the books with drugs, and sex, and cursing and killing?” (from a girl no less). This is a Catholic school with a limited (bur growing) urban lit collection, and it was for class, so I gave her Catcher in the Rye. I’m trying to gradually collect the Reluctant Readers lists for the past few years, though. Anything to keep them reading.

  2. Wonderful point. Thank you for making it. I get really frustrated that so-called “edgy” books often have to be defended as consciousness-raisers to uptight adults who worry that teens shouldn’t be exposed to these kinds of topics. What ABOUT the kids who are drug addicts or who have been raped or who are homeless, themselves? They exist in abundance and they deserve books that both reflect their experiences and can teach them about their situations. And they might even need these books more than the upper middle class, well-adjusted teens do.

  3. Francisca Goldsmith Francisca Goldsmith

    Thanks for the original posting and also the ongoing discussion. I hope we can continue to move the discussion of reads in different communities (urban, suburban and rural) into less one-dimensional considerations. Edgy books, info on drugs, and the high appeal of street lit (among other genres) are wanted by teens in many and any community and i have served many inner city teens with “high falutin'” tastes/wants, some of whom have been articulate about feeling slighted by staff who suppose that inner city (and poor) equals uninterested in anything but edgy. By the same token, among the most alienated teens i have served have been those in rural areas where little but drugs and familial poverty are the norm. The beauty of reading and advisory diversity is that it isn’t one size fits all in any demographic tag.

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