“The Hate U Give” is an award-winning young adult novel mesmerizing teens and adults alike who delve into its pages. Author Angie Thomas introduces the reader to Starr Carter, a 16-year-old Black girl whose life is permanently altered after a routine traffic stop turns deadly. Starr’s friend Khalil is giving her a ride home from a party when they are pulled over by a police officer for a broken taillight. The officer shoots and kills Khalil in front of Starr, and he dies at the scene. It’s a frightening scenario and a real fear for communities of color who are often seen as threats.
This pivotal moment in the novel takes place in the first two chapters. Afterward, readers learn more about Starr and the toll Khalil’s death has on her as the case moves through the judicial system.
Thomas captures the nuance of Black life — its challenges as well as lighthearted moments. For example, Starr refers to rapper J. Cole as her future husband. Starr’s father prays to Black Jesus, she lives in a Black neighborhood but attends a mostly White high school and there’s plenty of slang spoken by the characters. Thomas is a fan of rap and hip-hop, which shines through; even in the meaning of the title (I won’t spoil it for you).
“The Hate U Give” is Thomas’ first novel and has spent the past 18 weeks on The New York Times YA hardcover best-seller list. Currently, it’s No. 1. Thomas said she wrote “The Hate U Give” with young Black women and men in mind. Because of her success, she’s aware that she could easily be labeled as the “it” Black YA novelist of the moment. She has no plans in taking on that title and wants to use her access to uplift the voices of other Black authors.
Thomas lives in Mississippi and has a Southern drawl to match. She’s working on a second novel and has so far managed to name every chapter in the book after an old hip-hop song.
Lisa Edge: In the book, there are so many things that ring true about the Black community. From the names Devante and Dalvin to using the phrase “you smell like outside.” Was it important that you add in those little nuggets of authenticity?
Angie Thomas: Absolutely. I felt like I didn’t see that a lot in young adult books. I’ve had teenagers tell me, “I haven’t seen that kind of stuff in books.” It’s important. I wanted to even show — I’ll go with the name thing with Dalvin and Devante. They made fun of it in a way but there’s a line where Seven discusses what his dad says about names. What makes our names any different from anybody else’s names? Just because they’re unique doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing at times. I wanted to show that in a positive light. I wanted to have an unapologetically Black book. I wanted it to be there and I wanted it to sometimes make other people uncomfortable. I’m OK with that because I’ve been uncomfortable with books for decades. So they can be uncomfortable for a little bit. I wanted to celebrate us and who we are in the small ways.
LE: You said you wanted the book to be unapologetically Black. Did you have any qualms about writing it that way?
AT: I was definitely concerned. I did that before I had an official literary agent. The only way I allowed myself to even do that was I just made the decision, I’m writing this book for me, not for anybody else at the end of the day. That’s probably the best thing I could’ve done. But when it was time to go out to literary agents I was terrified. In the children’s publishing industry we have the call for diversity now. As a Black woman going into publishing that is mostly White, my question was how diverse do you really want it? Can I be unapologetically Black? Can I not hold back on some things? Or are you guys calling for diversity because that’s what looks right at the moment. I ended up asking a literary agent on Twitter if the subject matter was even appropriate for a young adult novel. He responded with “Yeah, I’d love to read it.” I signed with him a few months later. We took it to publishers, and 13 of them wanted the rights to the book.
Even after I signed with my publisher, I wasn’t sure that this book would sell. I wasn’t sure that the public would like this book — the young adult audience would like this book — because young adult has been so White. We put a Black girl on the cover. That’s rare in young adult books. My publisher was saying yes, we know this book is unapologetically Black, and we love it as it is. That’s been the attitude from the get-go. I’m very blessed to say that because I know there are a lot of Black authors out there who have had publishers and others tell them they need to tone it down or this has to be more mainstream or something like that, as if being Black can’t be mainstream. Audiences have proved them wrong that Black books can’t sell in young adult.
LE: In the novel, Starr’s parents give her the “how to interact with cops talk.” In light of the release of the Philando Castile dash-cam video, which shows him complying, how do you think the talk Black parents give their children now has changed?
AT: There’s a line in “The Hate U Give” where Starr’s mom says, “Sometimes you can still do everything right and things still go wrong.” I think Black parents are having to have that unfortunately hard conversation, that sometimes it doesn’t even matter, and for us to even have to say that, there’s no other way to put it because that’s what it feels like. It feels like no matter what we do nothing is stopping this. We can do everything right and it will still go wrong. So how do we make it? How do we survive that? What do we do?
I was just pulled over the other day in Louisiana, backwoods. Scared to death. I had my hands on the dashboard. My mom was driving actually, she had her hands on the steering wheel, and we were doing everything right. I guess the officer could tell we were terrified because all of sudden he went from being very agitated to, “I’m sorry I did this to you.” This is the state we’re in right now.
It hurts my heart to know that the conversation Starr’s parents had with her in the book is no longer applicable. I got that talk from one of my cousins who is a cop.
What can this country do to fix that? I’m not even putting this issue on Black America. We didn’t cause this, they did. The system did this. They need to fix it.
LE: There were times I had to take a break and put the book down. With everything happening, as a Black woman it was too much for me to read. To your credit, it felt quite real.
AT: I’ve had people tell me that a lot, and I understand it. I honestly had to put it down when I was writing it, so I totally get it.
LE: Why does Starr consistently refer to the officer who killed Khalil by his badge number even after she finds out his name?
AT: For someone like Starr who has been taught by her father that names have power, she did not even want to give him that power because she felt like he took something from her. He took Khalil’s life, yes, but he took a big part of this girl’s childhood because, at the end of the day, you’re 16, you’re still a child. He has ruined her childhood in a way. She will never for the rest of her life forget that when she was 16 years old she saw this happen to her best friend.
LE: There’s all kinds of Black experiences but you specifically have Starr straddling two worlds — her home life in Garden Heights and at school, which is very White. She utilizes codeswitching as a survival mechanism. Why have Starr move between these two very different worlds?
AT: That’s the experience of so many of our kids nowadays. I know it was for me in college. I went to a mostly White, upper-class, private, liberal arts school in conservative Mississippi. I lived in the hood. I had to be two people, and I know a lot of kids have to deal with that. It’s not addressed enough.
I’ve had so many Black girls tell me thank you for this because I’ve been accused by my friends at home of acting too White, but then if I go to a White school they think I’m too Black. That balance of trying to figure out who you are, where you are, then trying to figure out does my circumstance define my Blackness. So often that question gets raised.
I’ve had White kids who tell me I’ve never been to a neighborhood like Garden Heights in my life. They are still connected with Starr when it came to her to experience at school. I’m like how? They said I still have to figure out who I am at school versus when I’m at home. Of course, it’s not on the same scale, but they still connected and saw themselves in Starr.
LE: Who do you recommend should read this book?
AT: If my young Black girls can because I’ve had a lot of them tell me I’m afraid to read this book. If they can, I’d ask them to. I had a young lady recently in Austin, Texas her brother was killed by police and she said she started reading the book and it was hard, but she was pushing through because so much of what Starr said speaks to her and that means everything to me.
I’d ask cops to read it. My book is not anti-cop. It’s anti-police brutality; there’s a difference. I have law enforcement in my family. I’d ask politicians here in Mississippi to read it.
I wrote it for the kids I see in my neighborhood. I wrote it for a young Black boy in Philadelphia who told me, “yo ma I don’t like reading but I read this in a day.”
I’ve had so many kids who tell me I don’t like reading but I love this. I told my publisher this just proves that publishing has been wrong. You guys assume Black kids don’t read — they will when you give them something they like.
LE: Hopefully this starts a wave of more Black YA novels. How many are out there?
AT: There are more than people may realize; they’re not getting the attention they should. Publishing has assumed Black books don’t sell. The root of that assumption is Black kids don’t read or White kids don’t want to read about Black kids and that’s a lie. So now they’re trying to fix this. Now they’re giving more attention to Black authors that should’ve been lead titles.
Jason Reynolds is a phenomenal young-adult writer. This brother has won just about every award there is. His books speak to our kids and speak to other kids and show them our kids in such an authentic way. I want more and more people to read his books.
LE: I just read that your book is going to be made into a film with Amandla Stenberg playing the role of Starr.
AT: That came about not long after I got my book deal. My book agent connected me with a film agent and she absolutely loved the book, loved it almost more than my mom, which is saying a lot. She said, “I want this to be made into a film, and I’m going to do everything I can to see this happen.” It was a lot like with my book process. She submitted it to producers and all of a sudden we had like 10 or 12 production companies that wanted the option to this book. We went with Temple Hill and State Street. Everybody knows Temple Hill for doing the John Green movies and “Twilight.” State Street is George Tillman’s production company, and he’s actually directing the movie. It’s been a great relationship from jump and going well.
LE: Has there been anything along the way since the book has been published that’s surprised you?
AT: I’ve been surprised at how many people are actually interested in the story of a young Black girl. I’ve had events where older White women and older White men have told me, “I love this book. Thank you for opening my eyes.” I never thought that would happen.
I got an email from a lady. She was raised by White supremacists, and in recent years realized that her father’s world view was wrong and she wanted to change and she wanted to educate herself on things, and somebody told her to read my book and it opened up her eyes even more. That shocked me.
Teenagers listen more than we give them credit for. They understand more than we give them credit for and they have more empathy than we give them credit for.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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