Cards on the table: Angie Thomas is an acquaintance of mine from college–one of those right here in Jackson. I followed her nascent writing career on social media, and as things started to take off for her, I was rooting for her success, even before I saw any of her writing. The hype train for her first book, The Hate U Give, suddenly began to roll, in a big way. But when I finally got an advance copy in my hands, I started to worry: what if I didn’t like it?
Well, I am happy to report that I liked it–a lot. Writing a novel about a topical political issue seems ambitious, especially for a first novel. But that is a strength of what Thomas does here with The Hate U Give: she takes the political and makes it personal.
The Hate U Give is the story of 16 year-old Starr Carter, who is hitching a ride home with her childhood friend, Khalil, after a party, when they are pulled over by a police officer. Starr’s family has taught her to be cautious in this situation, but Khalil acts casually–which causes him to become a casualty.
When we hear about a police officer shooting a black person–often male, often young–we may recognize it as a shame for the names I hope we remember, but this tells the story of the ones left behind–of Starr, as the witness to Khalil’s killing, but also of their whole community of Garden Heights.
The title of the book is a take on an acronym, or a backronym, of a tattoo that Tupac Shakur had: THUG LIFE–The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody. The racism that white people give to black people hurts black people, of course, but it’s also bad for everybody, including those who give it. This hate is poison. The acronym takes a term of derision, thug, and turns it around as a warning against this hate.
Ironically, though, if Starr, as a black person, is hurt by this hatred from other people, she also derives her strength from other people, as well. Her father gives her his principles, her friend Kenya reminds here where she’s from, her Uncle Carlos gives her strength, and her (white) boyfriend Chris supports and adores her. And that’s just a sample; part of what’s so great about this YA novel is its depiction of black family and community. One of the most well-defined characters is her father, Maverick Carter, a former gangbanger who is now a proud business owner of a store in the Heights.
Rich characterization is found everywhere from both Starr’s black world (the Heights) to her white one (where she goes to school at predominantly white Williamson Prep, and where her police officer Uncle Carlos lives). Starr explores her identity as a black person, but also as a female, and as a teenager. And as a teenager, she grows throughout the course of the book, from fear to courage, from passivity to action.
The Hate U Give is a well-told, engaging, often fun, sometimes harrowing young adult novel about black community, and the effects of police violence against black lives. It shows accessible humanity on the side of the story not often seen. It is a tremendous first novel that is enjoyable for both teenagers and adults, and I implore you to give The Hate U Give a chance.