“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug.
“He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died.”
Starr Carter, the 16-year-old African-American narrator of “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, feels torn between two worlds. She and her family live in a poor inner-city neighborhood ravaged by drugs, gangs, and violence. But her parents, wanting to protect their children and give them a better future, work hard to send Starr and her brothers to a prestigious prep school. Dealing with two different sets of friends and two different sets of expectations, Starr often feels that she has to juggle two identities, never quite sure who she really is.
But Starr’s troubles are about to get much worse. For the second time in her life, she sees a close friend shot to death right in front of her eyes. The first time, it was her best friend, Natasha, killed in a drive-by shooting when the two girls were only 10. This time, it’s her lifelong friend Khalil, shot by a police officer during a traffic stop while taking Starr home after a party. As the only witness, a devastated Starr is about to see her life spin completely out of control.
“The Hate U Give” is a New York Times YA bestseller, slated to become a feature film. Thomas’ powerful story is clearly resonating with young readers. Her choice to make Starr’s world, and her voice, as realistic as possible means several things. It means that we’re pulled into Starr’s conflicts and feel the sense of fragmentation she feels — living in a black neighborhood but not quite at home there; dating a likable white boy but often uncomfortable among whites; adoring her uncle who’s a policeman but furious at what the police have done to her friend and her community; hating drugs and fearing gangs but loving many who are involved with them. It all intensifies after Khalil, as she puts it, becomes a “hashtag,” and Starr finds members of both her communities turning against her and each other, failing to understand the value of her friend’s life, and angry with her simply for seeing what happened and speaking the truth. Her struggle to find her place is understandable and real.
Thomas’ realism also means that the book is very heavy on profanity and on damaging, sometimes dangerous behavior. In Starr’s community, people help and care for each other, often to the point of great and admirable sacrifice; but the community also is full of broken families, men who beat their girlfriends and children, fighting, and promiscuity.
Starr herself, well aware of the possibility of teenage pregnancy, avoids sexual intercourse — though occasionally going further than she should with her boyfriend, Chris — but her mother still has her on birth control pills. Her father is a former gang member and ex-convict with a son from another relationship, although he’s managed over the years to become a loving husband and father who now owns his own store. (Starr’s parents’ marriage, which has survived that old betrayal and become much stronger, is a steady source of inspiration and hope for her.) And Starr and her friends are heavily into secular music and culture. The community as a whole is influenced by the ideas of everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X to the Black Panthers (Starr’s father and the shop owner next door, Mr. Lewis, have a running argument over Dr. King vs. Huey Newton).
None of this means that Angie Thomas is telling this story from a secular perspective. Thomas is a churchgoing Christian, and her faith influences her work. Starr often refers to Jesus as “Black Jesus,” a cultural construct she was raised with that nonetheless doesn’t seem to change her understanding of who Jesus is. We see her and her family praying together and attending church, her parents teaching her to “keep doing right” no matter what, and her parents and neighbors giving God credit for good things that have happened, like the great changes in her father’s life. However, it sometimes seems more as if Starr treats Jesus with respect, like a wise and powerful but somewhat distant authority figure, than as she if actually puts Him in charge of her day-to-day choices.
Nevertheless, Starr relies on the prayers of her loved ones when she has to testify in front of a grand jury about Khalil’s death at the hands of Officer Brian Cruise. The outcome of the case causes the community to explode in violence, in which Starr and some of her friends and relatives get caught up. Rioters, activists, gang members, and police become involved in a deadly battle from which few will emerge unscathed. (It should be noted that “The Hate U Give” has been said — at the second link above, for instance — to be inspired by Black Lives Matter, but the term itself never appears in the book.)
Starr comes out of it all feeling battle-scarred, yet with a stronger sense of hope. “Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending,” she tells us, near the end. She’s seen the horrible things that racism, fear, and hatred can do, but she’s also seen what love and courage can accomplish, sometimes in the most unlikely people. She knows that her voice and other voices have power to make a difference.
Parents will want to read “The Hate U Give” and think hard about whether their teenagers are ready to deal with the harsh realities it depicts. But I would suggest that, in any case, we should not ignore its themes and ideas. We should be just as concerned that real kids like Starr and Khalil are growing up in what are essentially war zones, as we are about bad behavior and words in YA novels. “The Hate U Give” is an unforgettable reminder of this brutal truth.
Image copyright Balzer + Bray. Review copy obtained from Barnes and Noble.