Angie Thomas talks about her debut novel, THE HATE U GIVE, a story inspired by the BLM movement and has quickly become a NYT bestseller.
A year ago, we had posted that a YA book was being optioned for film, and that it already had Everything, Everything‘s Amandla Stenberg attached to it. The book hadn’t been published yet, but that didn’t stop the studios from clamoring for the rights, which eventually went to Fox 2000.
Now, a few weeks after its publication, The Hate U Give (named after the Tupac Shakur song and acronym tattoo) has sold over 100,000 copies and is a New York Times bestseller. It has been praised by both critics and readers alike, which will probably give Fox 2000 all the more reason to jumpstart production on the movie. That’s quite a feat for a debut novel!
The famous origin story of this book is that you asked a literary agent on Twitter if he’d considered doing a YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. What made you want to go through an unconventional route to publishing?
I was afraid to send the book out to literary agents. If you said the words “black lives matter” to 30 people, you’d get 30 different reactions. I knew there were calls for diversity in children’s lit, but you always wonder as a person of color, how diverse is too diverse? I knew that I made this book as unapologetically black as possible, so I was afraid to query it.
Bent Literary Agency had a Q&A on Twitter and I took a chance and asked if the Black Lives Matter movement was an appropriate topic for a YA novel. Brooks Sherman, who is now my agent, responded that he didn’t think any topics were inappropriate for YA. I remember being so terrified, even just sending the tweet. I was at work and I called my mom, and she said, “If you don’t hit send, I swear to god.” But he immediately responded. It was the first moment that I felt confirmation that okay, I’m on a good path. A month or two later, I sent him the book, and it all went from there.
Starr, the book’s 16-year-old protagonist, lives in a predominantly black neighborhood, but she attends a mostly white school in another town. She is constantly confronting the stress of code-switching. Why was it important for her to straddle these two worlds?
So many black kids are put in that position, so I wanted to show that there is no one way to talk black. There is a stereotype that if you sound ghetto, and you use a lot of slang, that makes you black. I wanted to show this girl who exists in these two different worlds. Which Starr is the real Starr? There are so many adults who identify with that, too. I went through it myself when I was in college. Especially for young POC, when we enter majority-white spaces, we feel the need to assimilate, to blend in, to prove ourselves. I don’t think we discuss it enough. The way you speak should not determine your intelligence. I should be able to say “lit” and you still know I’m intelligent. I should be able to say “turn up” and that doesn’t take away from my intelligence. I wanted to break down that stereotype a little bit. I know it’s just a book, but if I can get kids to understand that it’s okay how they talk, then I’ll have done my job.
Was there ever any pushback from your publishers on the decision to have some of your characters speak in regional dialect?
Starr’s Uncle Carlos, he would say “all right,” but her dad would say “a’ight.” Both of them were still black. There is no one way that black people speak. There’s such a pervasive stereotype that black people don’t know how to talk. I wanted to show Maverick, Starr’s dad, as a very intelligent character. I wanted to show this black man speaking how he would naturally speak, while also showing how smart he is. None of my team working on this book made me dilute my characters’ dialect, either. My editor is very trusting and she had no issues with anything. There were times I had to send her to Urban Dictionary [laughs], but I was never asked to water it down. I was never asked to make this book accessible to white people.
I loved the decision to center the story around a young black girl, whose stories tend to get lost or back-burnered in discussions around police brutality. Was using Starr as your protagonist a conscious choice?
We do so much focus on young black men. I applaud the activists who have come forth in mentorship and in organizing and who have shared their voices and stories. But so often black girls are left out of the narrative. Young black girls are more likely to be suspended than white girls. Young black girls have lost their lives, too. Look at what happened to Rekia Boyd. Young black girls are thrown on the floor at school. They’re assaulted just for going to a pool party. They’re affected by this stuff, too.
I wanted to show it from the perspective of a black girl who is affected by [police brutality]on a personal level. When Trayvon Martin lost his life, the last person he spoke to was a young lady by the name of Rachel Jeantel. When George Zimmerman was on trial, they had Rachel come to the stand as a witness. There was more discussion about the way she presented herself than about what she was saying. I was so angry about that. Nobody was upholding this young black girl as the hero she was, for doing what she was doing. Instead, they said she didn’t present herself the proper way. I remember thinking, “I know so many girls just like Rachel.” I know so many girls who have witnessed terrible things. We don’t give them enough credit or support. In the book, Starr finds her voice and her strength and her activism. I want young black girls to read this and understand: Your voice matters, your life matters.
Read the full interview about more about Angie’s writing process right here.
Order The Hate U Give at Amazon.