by Leanne Jernigan, Wanek Center Librarian
For many years librarians lamented the lack of racial diversity among protagonists in the young adult (YA) fiction genre. Along with advocacy groups like WeNeedDiverseBooks.org, we “imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book,” even as they mature into adolescence. But where picture books for younger children made strides in recent years, YA lags behind, still featuring mostly white characters and “whitewashing” or “silhouetting” non-white characters on book cover art to appeal to more readers.
This literary landscape finally appears to be changing, however, due in no small part to the 2016 publication of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
The cover of this book (pictured left) features a clearly dark-skinned young woman, unapologetic as she stares down the reader and holds up a sign in protest of institutional racism. Interestingly, this image was created by People magazine illustrator Debra Cartwright who was inspired while confined to her office during a #blacklivesmatter protest (read more here). Despite the girl’s mouth being covered, her eyes speak volumes.
The novel follows 16-year-old Starr Carter, who struggles to manage two distinct lives: her home life in the predominantly black, poor, high-crime neighborhood of Garden Heights, and her school life at the predominantly white, wealthy suburban high school called Williamson Prep. Her greatest fear at school is to be called “ghetto,” while at home she fears her father will find out she has a white boyfriend at Williamson.
She succeeds at maintaining two separate identities until the night “Garden Heights Starr” witnesses the unwarranted fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a white police officer, and “Williamson Starr” is forced to confront the apathy of her (apparently colorblind) affluent friends in the aftermath. Starr’s walls begin to crumble and her worlds collide as she is called to testify for her murdered friend in front of a Grand Jury. She finally finds her voice only to face the heartbreaking reality that not everyone is ready or willing to listen.
The Hate U Give (THUG) debuted at number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for “young adult hardcovers,” where it remains after a staggering 91 weeks. It averages 5 stars out of over 2,800 reviews on Amazon.com, won the Boston-Globe Horn Book Award and ALA’s prestigious Morris and Odyssey awards, and was listed as an honor book in every other category for which it qualified. Not bad for a debut novel!
So why all the hype?
It certainly fills the aforementioned gap in the genre in an unprecedented way—yet it seems the success of this book lies in that it does so much more than present an African American female character an underrepresented group can relate to. Angie Thomas creates in Starr Carter a multi-dimensional character that teenagers from all walks of life can relate to, seamlessly bridging an important gap, and doing so in [what reads as] an authentic adolescent voice. Readers who identify more with “Garden Heights Starr” nod their heads at the injustice she faces, knowing this feeling all too well, while readers who identify more with “Williamson Starr” are offered a glimpse into a world of systemic oppression to which they may not otherwise be exposed.
The subject matter is certainly controversial; in fact, one of the many “Top Ten” lists the book made this year was the list of most frequently challenged books. It sits proudly atop “read a banned book” displays at libraries across the country this year, challenged primarily for inappropriate language, but also for sexual content, drug use, and an alleged “anti-police” message. Interestingly, I have not read any reports of restricted access due to the violent situations (murder of a child, domestic abuse, arson, etc.) depicted in the novel. Despite its success, the underlying message seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.
Perhaps this will change with the recent release of the movie adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg. Although controversy exists over the casting of a lighter-skinned actress to play Starr, the movie has received good reviews and brings the message of this powerful novel to a wider audience. Two book clubs on campus–the Library’s Panther Book Club and the English department’s Books-to-Movies Club–chose this title as their first read for the semester. It will likely continue to inspire important conversations for years to come.
Interested in reading the novel? You can check out a copy of The Hate U Give at the Wanek Center Learning Commons or on Reserve at Smith Library. The call number is: 813.62 T35ha 2017.