I’ve been out of the YA game pretty much since I started teaching college-level classes, though I sometimes dip my toe back in. But I kept hearing about this book, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. It sounded good and something I should probably read. And the book I thought I should probably read became a book I should read and then became a book I had to read, especially when my friend, Alexis, forcefully handed me her signed copy with a look that said, “You have to read this book, but if you damage or harm or lose this book, I will destroy you with the fire of a 1000 suns.” You don’t mess around with Alexis gives you that look. You do what she asks. And she was right. This is a phenomenal book, a book that I had to read, and a book that we all have to read.
The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr Carter, a young African-American teenager who moves between the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy neighborhood of her private prep school. She maintains an itchy, uneasy balance between the two worlds until the night her childhood best friend is murdered by a police officer in front of her. The resulting trial and its aftermath tear open Starr’s world in a myriad of ways, as she is the only one who really knows what happened that night. As she fights for her voice and her identity, she has to decide whether or not to fight for peace and justice as well.
When I was reading a lot of YA, dystopian YA was very “in”, and I had several conversations with people who wondered why that was so. It was, in part, because the stories gave teen readers worlds where they could have control, where the actions of adults had consequences, and they, the teens, were the ones who could actually fix, change, or save things. It created real-world empowerment in a fictionalized safe space. The thing I’m seeing now, though, is that it’s not dystopian worlds that are the thing–it’s our real world—the here and now–because our world is such a difficult place it can no longer be ignored. This is a good thing.
THUG is about empowerment, finding and using your voice, speaking truth to power, and accepting discomfort and growing from it. It’s about fighting for the right to live in safety, to not be discriminated against, and to not be controlled neither by others’ fear nor our own. Actions, good and bad, should and do have consequences, good and bad, and we have to continue fighting for what is right and good and true.
Thomas is a masterful writer, creating nuance and emotion and clarity with the simplest phrase, and she foregrounds ideas and topics integral to humanity today through realistic portrayals of lived experience. This book is immediate, visceral, timely, and timeless. It deals with police brutality and the lack of accountability and justice; the anxiety and challenges of code switching; the loss of friendship in many forms; school choice; and, at its root, identity. It explores the challenges of our society from the African-American perspective, but it allows those of use who have had different experiences from the characters in the book to move closer to understanding what life could be like one neighborhood over or across the city. Because here’s the deal. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently said in her keynote address at the 2018 NCTE conference (and I’m paraphrasing), it is important to read about people who are not like you because most of the world is not like you. Any story, if done well, becomes universal because stories are all about being human, and all writers are identity writers because identity shapes the way the world interacts with us and the way we interact with the world. And that is what THUG captures so clearly and beautifully.
So yes, you have to read this book. And if THUG exemplifies what our young adults are reading now, there may be hope for the future yet.