By Olivia Funderburg
Content warning: mention of police brutality
"Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug."
The Hate U Give follows 16-year old Starr Carter as she navigates the ins and outs of being a teenager: from friendships and sometimes fighting to boyfriends and maybe taking the next step. But Starr’s life is more complicated than some 16-year olds’ are. She has to navigate living between two worlds: the black neighborhood she calls home and the elite, predominately white high school she attends. Starr’s life quickly becomes even more complicated when she is the only witness when her childhood best friend Khalil, unarmed, is killed by a cop.
Angie Thomas deserves all the praise in the world, because for me THUG is up there with black books like Between The World and Me, it’s up there with young adult books like Speak or Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, hell, it’s up there with American books like The Great Gatsby. It’s that good and it’s that important. It is fraught and emotional; Thomas captures an essential narrative that spans all three of those genres. The Hate U Give is an achievement, and I will carry it with me forever. If not because Thomas’ debut novel debuted as a #1 New York Times Best Seller (and was one for seven weeks and still remains high on the list), then because her book affected me like no other book has. Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things comes close, another must-read.
The Hate U Give made me feel so much. I cried, I laughed, I gasped in shock, and I felt a little bit more complete. It’s hard to describe just how good it feels to be seen and understood. I loved reading THUG because Angie Thomas gets what it’s like to be me. You almost—almost—don’t notice your narrative is missing from the mainstream until it’s finally playing out in front of you.
Starr is such a dynamic character that it would be hard not to like her, but it doesn’t hurt that she and I both love Harry Potter and Lebron James, or that she and my brother both play basketball and have a passion for sneakers that I will probably never completely understand. And the connection goes deeper. I see my dad in Maverick Carter, a man who might not have always made the best decisions but knows how to protect his kids no matter what. I fear for my dad as Starr fears for Maverick that day in front of his grocery store. I see myself in Starr and her discomfort when interacting with friends who are much wealthier than her. Though I don’t live between two worlds in the same way that Starr does, I know my own sense of in-between as a biracial black girl.
Thomas set out to give black girls a mirror—she says this was her goal since black girls are often left out of conversations and of books—and she succeeded. Though THUG was written especially for black girls, that doesn’t mean it’s only for them. For me, since my life is vastly different from Starr’s, Thomas has offered both a mirror and a window. For everyone who doesn’t know what it is to be black it is a window into the unfair realities we fight every day. THUG is for people of all ages, races, orientations, religions, and abilities with positive messages like this one: “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?”
Right now, Thomas’ novel is an outlier, in terms of the community she represents and the content she tackles. She is an outlier with some close peers: see Nic Stone and Dear Martin (forthcoming), or Jay Coles and Tyler Johnson Was Here (forthcoming), or Ibio Zobio and American Street. I could name more. But just because I know who they are and diverse narratives are my focus, does not mean that diverse stories have the space they deserve in the big picture. I am sure that many other writers who have not really seen themselves in books are out there with funny, smart, and important stories to share too. Black girls are not the only ones who need mirrors.
Last week I checked Twitter to find people talking about another problematic young adult novel. This book, just acquired by HarperTeen, features a white author capitalizing on the very real fears of Muslim Americans in today’s America, and a blurb compares it to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the past few months, Book Twitter has had conversations about harmful representation in Carve the Mark, The Continent, Sad Perfect, All the Crooked Saints, The Black Witch, and I’m sure some I’m forgetting. I like to tell people that Book Twitter is a great place to be, if you’re following the right people. I can name an amazing #ownvoices book for each of those problematic ones— The Girl From Everywhere, Warcross (forthcoming), Shadowshaper, History is All You Left Me, The Sun is Also a Star. The #ownvoices hashtag was started by young adult author Corinne Duyvis to talk about children’s books whose authors share a marginalized identity with their main character. I am optimistic because though all of the publishing industry’s problems are not solved yet, progress has been made on representation. I dream of a world where harmful books get rejected, all impressionable kids can see themselves as the hero instead of the sidekick, and those working in the industry to acquire, edit, and market books are an accurate representation of those who they are publishing books for.
In THUG, one of Starr’s friends asks her, “What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?” I should use my voice to speak up for injustices, as we all should, and one of the best ways I know how right now is to talk about books. Harmful books are not the most pressing issue I can be worried about; they are not the only thing I am worried about. But as a student studying English and inequity in education and as a reader, I know how they can be dangerous and I am well-equipped to think about how books can be better. Books that are better are powerful: another author I admire said recently that books breed empathy, and she is correct. Stories should not be underestimated.
I’ll leave you with this: “You can destroy wood and brick, but you can’t destroy a movement.” Black Lives Matter and We Need Diverse Books are movements, movements that will carry on even though the work isn’t easy because the work needs to be done. Starr does not give up, so neither will I. My movement will be to read diversely, to do my best to raise my voice, and to keep reaching for that publishing job where I believe I can make a difference.
Olivia Funderburg '18 encourages everyone to read beyond their own experience and remember that "children's" literature may have more to say than they think.
From April 2017 issue