Here is a story I often tell about the positive effects of street lit:
Kelly Overton, the librarian who talked about the teens in her school reading street lit in this week’s interview, surveyed her high school students about street lit when she was working on her education thesis. The ninth and tenth graders, she learned, were passionate about street lit. Many of their favorite books were street lit books. But when she asked the juniors and seniors about street lit, they had a different reaction. “Oh, I used to read those books all the time,” many of the juniors and seniors said. But after reading street lit books for a while, those readers branched out. Some started reading popular YA titles like Go Ask Alice. Some moved to Gossip Girl. One read Toni Morrison. Several reported asking teachers and librarians what to read next.
Overton started thinking of street lit as “gateway fiction,” a genre that got teens started reading and then led them into more varied reading experiences. For those juniors and seniors, street lit had been an entry point into reading.
I have mixed feelings about this story, because talking about street lit as a “gateway” seems to imply that the genre has no value of its own and is only worthwhile because it might lead readers to some other kind of book. I do believe street lit has value on its own: it helps readers make sense of the world around them; it reflects lives and language that are still underrepresented in books; and it provides entertainment and escapism. But I also believe that street lit’s potential to open up new possibilities for readers is important.
Let teens find out that they can read, and that reading can be pleasurable, and they will go a thousand different directions. (They probably won’t stop reading street lit, but that wasn’t your goal, was it?) It’s just like any other genre teens read—series books, horror, mean girl books—they’re reading it because something in it meets their needs. When their needs change, they may well move on, or at least branch out.