5 | Street literature

Running a school library means finding books that really speak to students whose lives can often be difficult. Overton said her students often come into the library and ask for the “drama” or “realistic books.” She knows that they mean street fiction. Overton describes the genre as fast-paced, plot-driven narratives with extreme situations presented for their protagonists – often young, black and Latino characters.

Street fiction has its critics – but Overton isn’t one of them. In fact, she’s taken a scholarly interest in the genre. Since starting at Letters, she has earned a second master’s degree in education from Pace University. Her students at Letters provided the basis for the research for her thesis. The title: “The Allure of the Street (Fiction).” In her thesis, she investigated whether urban fiction provides students with a valid and challenging reading experience.

Overton reported that in a study of almost 200 Letters students, she found that the only reading material they preferred more than “realistic fiction” was the Internet. “Books for school” came in 11th of the 21 categories she surveyed. She wrote, “As adolescents, students are developmentally looking to identify with rather than observe from afar. They want to read about characters who look like them, act like them, seem like they would understand them.”

One of the dog-eared books at Letters is “The Coldest Winter Ever,” a novel written in 1999 by the recording artist and activist Sister Souljah. It’s set in the Brooklyn projects and tells the story of Winter Santiaga, the daughter of a wealthy drug dealer whose life goes on a series of wrong turns.

Overton says students who engage with stories like this ultimately want more. “I’ve never ever, ever known a kid who was crazy about street fiction that didn’t eventually branch out,” said Overton, adding that whatever teenagers want to read is good. “In terms of educators building relationships with students, we should give them material that they want, especially in a library. Of course it’s not great literature but you have to understand the importance of it. They’re reading it for a reason. It’s helping them process something.”

Donovan X. Ramsey