Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give has been picking up steam before it even released to the public, and now, a couple months past its publication date, it still hasn’t slowed down. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is both timely and well-written–if you read (and even if you normally don’t) this is a book worth picking up.
About the book: Khalil is driving Starr home from a Garden Heights party when they are pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. The cop thinks they’re acting suspiciously, and one unannounced move wins Khalil three shots to the back. This is the second time Starr has witnessed the death of a best friend. She’s caught in the middle between loyalties to her family and neighborhood and the reputation she’s built for herself at a predominantly white school. Speaking out for Khalil and fighting for justice is dangerous for her in both worlds, but as her home life and school life collide she has to decide what she’s willing to fight for, and which people in her life are really on her side.
” ‘These cases always interesting,’ King says. ‘The dig for information. Shit, they try to find out more ’bout the person who died than the person who shot them. Make it seem like a good thing they got killed.’ “
Right at the start, I want to talk about how hard it’s been to find a good direction for this review. Generally when I’m writing reviews I aim to stick to the story itself, and not go into tangents about the current state of the world. But this is a book that’s meant to raise awareness and start conversations, and that intent is what I want to talk about.
“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”
There are a lot of things to love about The Hate U Give, and readers have been talking about all those good things for months. Like everyone else, I appreciated the writing style, the plot, and its attempt to raise awareness of continuing racism in America, because the book does all those things indisputably well. I do think it misses an important opportunity, though.
I don’t disagree with the argument that there is still racism in the US. It’s not something that I see firsthand every day, but I have no difficulty believing that it’s out there, not just in big ways like unfair deaths but in a thousand small words and gestures. I can get behind that argument. I can get behind the need to stop racism. What I can’t get behind is substituting one instance of racism with another one. There are generalizations about white people in this book. Just a small handful of instances, and nothing too cruel beyond the fact that they’re generalizations, but I was surprised to find them here at all. It’s odd to see commentary like that coming from Starr, who’s so aware of offenses going the other way and who’s interested in justice, not revenge. I felt that these moments were maybe meant to make white readers a little uncomfortable, to flip the tables and show them what the characters in this story are dealing with, and for that reason I didn’t completely mind that those instances were in the book even though generally I feel that’s the wrong approach. The real reason those little instances of being lumped in a category with people who ride garbage cans down stairs and kiss dogs on the mouth bugged me was because this book could have done more to make a positive change. It has everyone’s attention–but what is it doing with it?
That’s the missed opportunity. The Hate U Give does a great job of raising awareness of injustices. It shows a case where the white man’s word means more than the black girl’s, and does it in a way that convinces the reader that this is not unusual in modern US. But what can we learn from it? What is it telling readers they can do differently to help solve continuing problems of racism? If you’re a cop, maybe it tells you to learn the whole story before you shoot. But if you’re not a cop, what can you do? If you don’t have a black girlfriend to follow through riots, what can you do? There are good characters who set good examples in this book, but very little to suggest what readers can do to follow their footsteps. I didn’t expect this to be a stop-racism-instruction-manual. But I think this book really missed a great opportunity to encourage positive change when it stopped at raising awareness.
“At the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”
But that’s not the reason I docked a star from my rating. I believe this book could’ve made even more of a statement, but the statement it does make is an effective one. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it. But it’s one of those stories you have to read for the characters, because there’s not much to surprise readers in the plot. Once you know the premise, you know the most important event of the book, and anyone living in (or hearing about) modern US can make an educated guess about the end result of that main event. Everything else has to do with character, and while they’re great characters, they’re not surprising either.
“I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That’s like being ashamed of myself.”
But let me end on a good note, because I loved everything else about this book. Starr’s family is fantastic. The writing style is easy to follow, inspiring, and keeps the reader hooked from page one, no matter what they’re feeling about the subject matter. These are the sort of characters that readers wish were their real friends. It’s that perfect blend of fiction and reality that I love–the sort that blurs the line between fact and imagination, and proves literature can do important things.
” ‘Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,’ she says. ‘It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.’ “
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I got exactly what I expected from this book. We need more of this in literature–fiction that shows what’s going on in real life; although I also hope that writers will be brave enough to offer more suggestions for change. There are important messages in this book, about voices being powerful weapons and the need to listen to the whole story, every time, and refrain from making assumptions. I would definitely read another book from this author, and you can bet I’ll be recommending this one in the future.
- The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, a memoir about a young woman in Mississippi whose family and friends have been dying one by one as a direct and indirect result of continuing racism. This is a powerful story of five lives lost in five years, with enough narrative to appeal to habitual fiction readers even though it’s grounded in fact.
- If you’re looking for more YA that raises awareness of real-life problems, Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species and Robin Roe’s A List of Cages are great choices. McGinnis’ book highlights the very real effects of rape on an entire community, and Roe’s book focuses on misuse of the foster system and guardianship rights. Neither deal directly with racism, but are timely and important YA novels that I believe are also important for readers looking to learn about the modern world through fiction.
What’s next: I’m just starting Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a YA historical fiction novel about a Lithuanian girl trying to communicate with her father through her art while she’s at a Serbian work camp during WWII.
Have you read any recent releases? What did you think?
The Literary Elephant