When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there, or any damn where until I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
When a book gets the level of attention that Angie Thomas’s debut has had, it has a lot to live up to. YA as a genre is great at tackling current issues and The Hate U Give brings Black Lives Matter to the forefront.
Starr is sixteen years old and lives in Garden Heights, not exactly the most affluent part of town. Her parents work hard to send their children to school outside the neighbourhood, travelling up to an hour each way to the suburbs where Starr is only one of a couple of black kids at Williamson Prep. Leaving a Garden Heights party with best friend Khalil, they’re pulled over by a police officer, Officer One-Fifteen. Unarmed, Khalil is shot in the back right in front of Starr, the only witness other than the officer. Some people demand her to speak up, others would rather she stayed silent. With tensions rising, Starr has to make a decision that could land her whole family in danger.
Starr is a perfect lead and her voice is authentically teenage. Amidst the chaos that Khalil’s death causes, she still has to go to school, still has boyfriend problems that are unrelated to the shooting. She struggles to keep the two parts of her life separate and this adds to her pain, feeling that her school friends won’t understand, or will judge her. None of her friends know that she was a witness at first and those scenes at school where people are debating Khalil’s death, whether he deserved it or not, are heartbreaking.
Another strength is Starr’s family. Thomas gives her an imperfect family where love is ever-present. Her older brother, Seven, has a different mother who just happens to be the girlfriend of King, the local gang leader. Starr’s father is a strong influence, a former gang member who served time for King and then turned his back on that lifestyle once he got out. He teaches his kids to be better, making them work in the grocery store that he owns, hoping that they’ll go to college and be able to move away. Uncle Carlos is a police officer who knows Officer One-Fifteen, and seeing how he reconciles his professional life with what’s happening to his family was incredible interesting. Thomas gives so many sides to this story but it’s never too much.
This is an incredible novel that is current and, perhaps unfortunately, won’t date. In the book, Starr posts about the lynching of Emmett Till on her Tumblr, a crime which went unpunished back in the 1955. You have to hope that in sixty years time we aren’t still talking about the deaths of young black men and women in this way.