09/30/2011 11:56 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

'Urban Lit': Considerations for Understanding What Your Adolescent is Reading

It started out innocently enough with a simple question, "So what types of books do you enjoy?" I was in the process of interviewing participants for my dissertation and this question was supposed to be an icebreaker. Interestingly the responses that I received from the African-American adolescent girls were not so simple. The young women, ages 14-21, informed me that they enjoyed reading romances, mysteries, and poetry, but they also enjoyed reading 'Urban Lit' or 'Street Fiction' novels as they are sometimes called. For me, their responses were a little bit startling because I've read a number of urban literature books and found them somewhat provocative and sexually explicit with portrayals of sexual coercion, trading sex for goods (i.e., rent, designer clothes & purses), rape, gun violence and substance abuse. In fact it took me almost 6 months to read B-More Careful by Shannon Holmes, due to its violent content and sexually explicit material. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to any adult but I struggled with some of the content. So, as I queried some adolescents about the books they read, I began to wonder about the numbers of young teens reading these books? What impressions are these books leaving them with and is the content affecting their risk behaviors and with whom are they discussing these books?

With its roots in hip-hop culture and the pulp fiction era, 'Urban Lit' began to appear in the 1990s, first as self-published novels often sold on street corners and local fairs, then in local book stores who catered to minority populations. More recently urban literature has been accepted by mainstream society and publishers and is now being sold in major chain bookstores such as Barnes and Nobles, as well as on the internet from websites like Amazon. Targeted for the 18-44 year old market, adolescents as young as 8 years old are reading. There are no clear figures on annual sales of urban literature however, books sales in the young adult fiction market exceeded $3 billion in 2009 and approximately 42 percent of adolescents between 9 and 17 years old read for fun and 37 percent of 6-17 year olds are daily readers.

As a women's health nurse practitioner in an urban community health center, I see the results
of the high-risk sexual behaviors that teens are engaging in, especially in African-American communities. Daily, I diagnose, treat, counsel and educate young girls and women about the importance of protecting themselves from pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS as well as navigating a whole host of psychosocial problems. In fact my patients mirror national statistics. In 2009, of United States teens 46 percent have engaged in sexual activity at least once and 34.2 percent are currently sexually active. Compared to other ethnic groups, African-American adolescents are more likely to have had sex (65.2 percent vs. 49.1 percent Hispanic; 42 percent Caucasian), initiated sexual activity before age 13 (15.2 percent vs. 6.7 percent Hispanic; 3.4 percent Caucasian), and have greater numbers of lifetime partners (28.6 percent vs. 14.2 percent Hispanic; 10.5 percent Caucasian), which put them at greater risk for pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS and other longterm sequelae.

Over the next few months, I began explore my surroundings to try to gauge the prevalence of 'Urban Lit'. I noticed that many of the health center's employees were reading, trading and discussing 'Urban Lit'; patients in the waiting and exam rooms were reading them, and the local African-American bookstore had a large section devoted to 'Urban Lit'. I even attended the Harlem Book Fair in New York City and found many 'Urban Lit' authors speaking with readers including adolescent girls. Next, like any good academician and researcher, I conducted a literature search and found articles written by librarians about the genre, its history and the popularity of these novels. English professors wrote about the language used, the substance and the implications of this form of writing but no clear research on or using these novels. There was nothing pertaining to urban literature and its influence or non-influence on risk behaviors or health implications among adolescent girls.

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to explore who, what, where and when of 'Urban Lit' by conducting a small qualitative research study. The participants were African-American young women between 18 and 21 years old were asked about their introduction to this genre, and their beliefs about the realism, the popularity among adolescents, female character portrayals and whether they believe that their or their peers' behaviors were influenced by what they read. The young women reported that urban literature novels were very popular among African Americans and that very young teens were reading these novels. They believed that approximately 25-50 percent of younger African-American adolescent girls, but very few adolescent boys, read these novels and they, the participants, began reading them when they were 12 or 13 years of age. This group reported that they purchased these novels based on recommendations and interest but also received them from their mothers and other family members. They also reported that novels were frequently traded for other books among peers and at school. Some participants reported discussing the content of the novels with family members or peers while others did not. When asked about the realism of the novels, each participants reported knowing someone who was in 'the life' or leading lives that mimic characters in the novel. Because participant were older, they reported being able to discern that these novels were fictionalized accounts but believed that younger adolescents might not be able to distinguish fact from fiction instead believing that this might be an accurate portrayal of the way a woman might behave.

So what's the meaning of this study? The results cannot be generalized to all adolescents who read 'Urban Lit' novels. Among older adolescents, ages 18 and older, this study found that participants were able discern fiction from reality. However younger adolescents might not be able to which may lead them to make poor decisions. It is difficult say if these novels are affect adolescent beliefs and attitudes but it is worth noting that research has found that some types of media i.e. music, television, have been associated with negative risk behaviors including violence and sex, as well as alcohol and drug use. Clearly more research is needed to assess the influence of this genre of literature on young adolescent girls.

So what can parents do? First, it is important to encourage your teen to read. Studies have shown that students who are good readers do well in school and are successful adults. Secondly, monitor and read the books that your adolescents are reading and discuss the content with them. Third, Share your beliefs, values and ideas with them, these help guide the adolescents' self-identities. These conversations can also help them distinguish between acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors. Multiple studies have shown that despite the opinions of peers, adolescents' cite parental closeness and communication about their beliefs and attitudes as very important in guiding them with decision-making including risky behaviors. Fourth, be open, honest and factual when responding to their questions. It's ok if you don't know the answers, look for the answers together. Adolescents need to understand that adults don't have all the answers and that learning is a continual process throughout life.

So I ask you "Do you know what your child is reading and more importantly, have you read it?"