Article Critique – Reaching Out to At-Risk Teens: Building Literacy with Incarcerated Youth, by Stephanie Guerra

Guerra provides supporting evidence that literacy skills reduce recidivism, creating a solid case (beyond community service in general) for public libraries to serve incarcerated teens in reading instruction and book circulation services.

Instruction is a necessary component, as incarcerated youth read, on average, at a fourth-grade level, and one-third are illiterate. Most incarcerated teens did not, and will not, finish high school. While Guerra creates a grim scenario for these youth, it is encouraging to be reminded of the importance of literacy in the prevention of potential incarceration for at-risk teens, and that literacy can be instrumental in the remediation of currently incarcerated teens.

The importance of providing books that teens can relate to is a challenge unto itself, but it is critical to the success of the outreach. This is where a careful and specific collection policy comes in. It needs to be agreed to by correctional staff (acting in loco parentis, and usually adhering to a strict literature censorship policy), and meet the needs of the incarcerated community. In many cases, Street Literature and Young Adult Street Literature genres are connecting with readers in ways that other genres have failed, but usually touches on many of the prohibited themes, behaviors, or depictions included in the facility policies. I believe that Guerra, challenging the “all or nothing” approach, strikes a solid balance with carefully curated, and edited Street Literature, and a wide range of other reading materials from which the teens may choose.

I believe that the chance to create a new reader is potentially critical in these instances. If they begin with Street Literature, they may wander to other genres that do not reflect their current experience, but one that they may envision in their future. “Literature has the power to shape, change or reinforce beliefs” (as cited by Guerra, 2010). That they are reading is the first step in reaching greater goals for the incarcerated teen.


Guerra, S. (2010). Reaching Out to At-Risk Teens: Building Literacy with Incarcerated Youth. PNLA Quarterly, 75(1), 50-60.



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