The world feels very wrong right now. Between shootings, terrorism, and the horrible people that are governing our country with seemingly no ethics or empathy whatsoever. I’ve been trying to write a review of this book for a while, and it’s especially relevant right now with this week’s acquittal of Philando Castile. On top of everything that’s going on, The Hate U Give is a tough read, but it’s also a must read. I want everyone to read this book.
I wouldn’t normally say that about a book, because there’s no book that everyone will experience the same way. But The Hate U Give was incredible, and so very important, and I felt I was changed for having the experience of reading it.
Sixteen year old Starr Carter lives with her family in a mostly black, low-income neighborhood called Garden Heights. Everyone Starr knows has some connection to the local gangs, and getting sucked into them seems almost inevitable. Starr’s parents enroll her in a mostly white high school with better educational opportunities. She’s made some good friends at the school, but they don’t really know the real Starr. And she’s let her childhood friendships lapse because she’s not really herself with them either.
Starr is talked into attending a neighborhood party which takes a frightening turn when shots are fired. Starr gets a ride from her friend Khalil, a boy she’s always been close to. When they’re stopped by police for a broken taillight, Starr remembers the rules her father has drilled into her… no sudden moves, no arguments, hands in plain sight. Starr learned at an early age to fear being pulled over, and this time her fear is justified.
Sadly, despite the videos and protests over police shootings, nothing is changing. Yesterday morning I watched the new footage of the Castile shooting that was released and it was devastating. This book puts you right in the passenger seat of that experience.
Thomas really helps us to feel everything that Starr goes through, from the horrific experience with the police, to navigating adulthood in her school and community, to coming to terms with who she is and wants to be. It’s not just a book about police brutality or racism, although it’s both of those. Starr and her family wrestle with what it means to be black, and there are few easy answers. Thomas deftly blends important political statements with a complex and very real story about family, friendship, and the place we call home.
There’s so much in this book that made me think — and feel. One thing I’ve thought a lot about since reading this book is how much I hold back from talking about race because as a white person, I’m sure I’ll say the wrong thing. I say stupid things all the time, but I would hate to say something offensive (and yet I’m sure I have). Starr has a good friend who hurts her with racially insensitive comments and actions. When Starr has the courage to confront her friend, she’s looking for an apology, but she gets anger and defensiveness instead. I think about being that person (say, mixing up two people’s names who are the same race, or making a reference to fried chicken, as in this book) and how I would feel if I was called on it. I know I have inherent biases, and I try to be mindful of them. But these are hard conversations to have, and to have honestly.
I also thought a lot about how working-class rural whites are described in books like Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land as feeling like black people get all these privileges. I realize these communities have their own problems and they’re angry for a reason. And yet, if you’re black, your life is at risk just for wearing a hoodie or driving a car. Or as Trevor Noah commented recently, for anything at all.
Starr’s voice felt really authentic to me, to the extent I can judge at least. Sometimes Starr talks the way I remember talking as a teenager, although of course she comes from a different community and a different generation. Thomas manages to make Starr feel sixteen years old without ever sounding childish. This is YA literature that doesn’t talk down to its readers.
There’s so much I want to say about this book. Even if you don’t usually read YA fiction, you should read this. Thomas’ first novel tells a powerful, important story in a way that’s never preachy or oversimplified. Just raw, honest emotion that had me crying and cheering for Starr again and again.