This is something of a wayback playback, but I want to talk about Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever. The 1999 novel by the Brooklyn MC is about the daughter of a New York City drug lord. The daughter, Winter, loses her wealth and status when her father is arrested and their assets are seized by the FBI. Winter survives by moving in with another drug dealer, exchanging her body for the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed. When that arrangement ends she lives briefly with family, flees child services, greases up her face and takes off her fake nails before a girl-fight, and in a key scene, shaves her pubic hair into a cute shape to try and woo a famous rapper into sleeping with her. If this sounds crazy please keep in mind this was the nineties, so women still had pubic hair.
Doesn’t sound like an especially important piece of literature, right?
Here in Toronto and in similar programs throughout North America, The Coldest Winter Ever has done more to influence adult literacy than any other book I can think of. There are lots of books that have successfully transformed children or teens into readers. The Harry Potter series, for example, is so engaging that it is directly credited with increasing literacy rates in young boys. But there are few titles that inspire this same excitement in adult readers. Enter Sister Souljah and organizations like Literature for Life.
Literature for Life is a program targeted at young mothers. The charity holds reading circles at women’s shelters and youth centres throughout the city, with the goal of inspiring a love of reading in mothers who will presumably pass this love of reading to their children. The charity reports that children born to teenage mothers are 50% more likely to drop out of school, and that reading and literacy proficiency increases chances of employment. The problem is that many of the girls in the program are high school dropouts, themselves the children of single mothers, and don’t have a good relationship to reading and literature. The program’s biggest challenge is finding books that are deeply engaging. You’ve got to hook them. That’s what makes The Coldest Winter Ever so effective. It has hip hop culture, drugs, sex, girl fights, family drama; all written in language and cadence that is familiar to the readers. It also doesn’t have an easy happy ending, treacly morals, or simple resolutions to complex problems. It’s The Wire in Empire’s clothing. You’ve got to hook them.
The Coldest Winter Ever is always the first book the girls in the program read. By its conclusion, they’re excited to move on to the next, usually more traditional, selection. Hooked on the idea that literature can be for them and about them.