Published by Balzer + Bray
Publication date: February 28th 2017
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Young Adult
On the surface Starr Carter is a normal sixteen-year-old girl. But look closely and you’ll see a young woman struggling to make it in two very different worlds. Her home is a poor, largely black neighborhood and both her parents work, but she goes to school at a private school where she is one of only a few black students and she has a white boyfriend. While her neighborhood friends know about school they have no idea about her boyfriend and her school friends know nothing about her neighborhood. Starr manages this dual life until she and her childhood friend Khalil are stopped by a cop who kills Khalil and leaves her kneeling on the pavement with his dead body in her lap and the cop’s gun pointed at her head. This is Angie Thomas’s extraordinary debut novel, The Hate U Give.
While this event is shocking Thomas doesn’t rely on that shock to propel The Hate U Give. Instead, it is the very real aftermath, the absolute apathy of the system that jolts the reader throughout the novel. Starr doesn’t tell anyone at school or in her neighborhood about being in the car with Khalil when he is killed—even after it makes national news. She watches in disbelief as he goes from the reality of being an unarmed black teenager to an armed drug dealer while she is described as swearing and putting the officer in fear for his life. She listens to her friends at school talk about how he deserved to die and sees her neighborhood erupt in protests. As Khalil’s young life is vilified and distorted she is faced with keeping her head down and her mouth shut to avoid ‘disturbing’ her affluent friends and speaking the truth—even when it has significant consequences for herself and her family.
Thomas does a remarkable job sculpting the lives in The Hate U Give. She doesn’t go for the easy emotionality that could accompany a novel centered in a community facing harsh social and economic challenges. The economy of Starr’s neighborhood is the drug trade. Most businesses are gone and job opportunities are few. Both her parents work, her mother as a nurse and her father owns a small neighborhood grocery store, which is the only reason she and her brother go to private school. For a wide variety of reasons her friends are not on the same path as she is. These are the facts of her life. As is her best friend being killed in a drive-by shooting when she was ten. As is her father teaching her when she was little how she must behave if approached by anyone in law enforcement. She knows by heart the rules. Thomas doesn’t hammer the reader with these points, but in Starr’s acceptance of them, they make anyone privileged enough not have to face such facts feel queasy.
In the same way, Thomas doesn’t feel the need to pretty up any of the characters in The Hate U Give. Khalil may not have been living the cleanest of lives, but there is justification for his actions and he was clean, in every way, when he was pulled over. The same cannot be said for the police officer, the criminal justice system, and the media. So many people in this country believe the story as it’s told and never stop to question why it’s spun that way, myself included. It’s easier that way. And yet, now, more than ever, easy should not be an option. The Hate U Give is a powerhouse of the kind of fiction you can’t put down. That it is a debut and a young adult novel is an even more important sign of Thomas’s future as a writer. This is a novel that will not only open your eyes, it will force your lids back to see the truth. And it’s painful.