Talking With Angie Thomas, Author of the Best-selling YA Novel Inspired by Black Lives Matter

Angie Thomas. Photo: Anissa Photography

One week after it was published, Angie Thomas’s thrilling debut young-adult novel, The Hate U Give, shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list for young-adult books. The story follows 16-year-old Starr Carter, a basketball-playing sneakerhead who lives in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood and attends a rich, predominantly white school. After she witnesses her childhood best friend fatally shot by a police officer, Starr confronts the reality of racial injustice in America, grapples with how she can continue to straddle two completely different worlds, and is drawn into activism.

Since the book came out, The Hate U Give (named for a Tupac song) has reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies, been widely praised by critics and been optioned for a film, with Amandla Stenberg attached to play Starr. On Friday, the Cut got on the phone with Thomas while she traveled on her book tour to talk code-switching, police brutality, and why she can’t leave Mississippi just yet.

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.

Why was it important for you to write this book as a young-adult novel as opposed to a book for adult readers?

In so many cases where unarmed black people lost their lives, the victims were young. Trayvon Martin was 17. Tamir Rice was 12. Michael Brown was 18. When young people see that, they’re affected by it. I know young boys in my neighborhood who said that they could have been Trayvon. They could have been Tamir. The young lady who was slammed on the floor at her school by a police officer, when they see that, they see themselves. I wanted to write this for them. I also knew that YA fiction goes beyond young adults. I wrote this from a perspective of a 16-year-old girl, so I felt like I had a better chance of reaching people who may take issue with the phrase “black lives matter.” People who already have their preconceived notions about the movement, about all of it. If I presented it from the perspective of this innocent teenage woman, they might be able to understand.

Why do you think there has been a recent wave of teen books that address these real-life, often intense issues?

These are the issues that teenagers are vocal about. They’re finding their voices. We’d be doing them an injustice if we weren’t giving them the mirror to see themselves in. These kids will be the ones to run this country. In one year, two years, four years, they’re going to be voters. If we start building empathy in them, maybe some of the things we have to fight for now, we won’t have to in the future.

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.

There has been a lot of media attention around Marley Dias’s #1000BlackGirlBooks and the Well-Read Black Girl book club. But there is still a stunning lack of diversity in book publishing. Do you see a change coming?

I’m extremely lucky because my publisher went all-in behind this book. They’re amazing. They recognized that there is a problem in publishing. They put the big marketing dollars behind this book because they wanted to break away from the narrative that black books don’t sell. I do hope that we’ll start seeing more black girls on the cover of books, more books about black girls. Publishing does not target black kids like they should because they stereotypically think that black kids don’t read. I could send them the emails that I get from black kids who have read this book. I’ve had so many of them. I hope that publishing will continue to give these kids mirrors, and the white kids who read this book will get windows into black kids’ lives.

We Need Diverse Books did a study where they found that something like 7.5 percent of children’s books in 2015 featured black characters as the main character, but 25 percent of books featured trucks and animals as main characters. You mean to tell me that there are more books about trucks or animals than there are about black kids? Those kids deserve to see themselves.

You still live in Jackson, Mississippi, and you’ve said that being a black woman from the South is a huge part of what makes you who you are. Now that the novel has taken off, and a movie has been optioned, do you see yourself moving elsewhere?

I’m committed to staying in Mississippi, but lately, I’ve been back and forth on it. As much as I love Mississippi, I don’t feel like it loves me back as a black woman. Any time you live in a state where there is pushback on a flag that represents a nasty part of our history, you don’t feel like, as a black person, that you have any value. When you live in a state where there are currently attempts to make sagging pants illegal, and you know that’s going to target young black men, and give them a police record, you do not feel like you have any value. I don’t feel welcome as a black person when you do things like call MLK Day “Robert E. Lee Day.” I’m supposed to feel like you’re fighting for me, as a black person? Mississippi has a lot of growing to do.

But then, at my launch party in Jackson, a middle-school teacher brought 20 or 30 of [her] students. She drove the bus there herself because she said she wanted them to see me. They sat there at the launch, and they asked some of the best questions, they were so into it. Afterward, when I was signing their books, a couple of them told me they didn’t know they could be an author until they met me. You’re from here! You’re like us! That’s what is going to keep me there, in Mississippi. There are other kids who I haven’t even interacted with yet, too. They don’t realize their potential. I take that seriously. Had I met an author when I was 12, I probably would have done this sooner. There are active efforts to move Mississippi forward. That keeps me there. Those kids keep me there.

If you had to put The Hate U Give into any person’s hands, who would it be?

I’m not going to say our president because I’ll get trolled, but I would hope if he read it, he’d start to understand some things (though I’m not sure he would). Honestly, if I could put it in anybody’s hands, this is going to sound weird, but it would be Tupac Shakur. He influenced so much of this book. He opened my eyes to so many things, he inspired me as a young black woman to keep going. I would want to give it to him as a way to say thank you.

A Chat With the Author Behind the Black Lives Matter YA Book