When Michelle Stimpson began writing short stories for her students at Sunset High School in Dallas, she soon realized she was onto something big. “Initially, I started writing these stories because my students wouldn’t read what I left with the substitute,” Stimpson admits. What began as a need to keep the students on track turned into a bit of an obsession. “After a while, they were asking me when I was going to be absent again so they could read another one of my stories.”
Michelle took their quasi-compliments as encouragement, established WeGottaRead.com, and released the highly successful Moment of Truth kit in 2008. The kit is a collection of short stories, informational articles, multi-media tools and comprehension activities aimed at struggling high school readers. Students meet characters who struggle with real-life issues including drug abuse, harmful pranks, date rape, and relentless bullies.
Joining Stimpson in the effort to reach youth are several publishers of non-traditional literature. New Jersey-based Townsend Press created the popular Bluford Series to reach this underserved population. And Kimani Press, an imprint of Harlequin, also markets to groups once thought to be “non-readers.” Their Keysha’s Drama series has sparked the creation of school books clubs in Chicago.
Not everyone agrees with the controversial subject matter, however. Bobbie Castell, Vice Principal at an alternative high school in Garland, TX, wonders if juvenile urban fiction does more harm than good. “The characters in these books aren’t always good role models for our kids. We have to be careful not to reinforce negative stereotypes in the name of reaching at-risk students,” she warns.
Indeed, drug dealers, teen parents, and domestic violence are staples of this genre. However, Stimpson (who holds a Master’s degree in education) argues that her work helps students see the consequences of bad choices. “One of the greatest benefits of reading is being able to learn about other people’s problems without having to live through them. Realistic fiction helps gives kids a chance to learn from others’ mistakes.” She also cites numerous letters from students and teachers who believe the short stories have changed lives.
The impact of hip-hop literature is yet to be determined. Will these students become life-long readers? Will they associate reading with pleasure? Perhaps acclaimed academic writer Kelly Gallagher best labels what the publishers of juvenile urban fiction are trying to prevent: readicide – the systematic killing of the love of reading. While only time will reveal its long-term impact, hip-hop fiction may be a step toward preventing the loss of one of America’s great past times.