Sometimes, once in a long while, you happen across a book you cannot stop thinking about. Even when you’ve closed it and are at work, or at the grocery store, or are watching your favorite show, it drifts in the back of your mind. Lines of dialogue, or mental pictures of the characters, or a mere tug at your consciousness to just keep reading pester you constantly. Then, you resume reading and find yourself wondering why you ever bothered to do anything else. How can you, after all, when there is a fantastic book that must be finished?!
This phenomenon happens rarely to me. Many books are interesting, some are even engrossing, but few are so consuming.
The Hate U Give was a consuming, extraordinary read for me.
This debut book by Angie Thomas tells the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old black girl who goes to a rich, predominately white private school. Her neighborhood is rough, gangs are prevalent, and her family is not very rich. They aren’t as poor as others in the area, but are practically destitute compared to Starr’s white friends — and her white boyfriend, Chris.
One night, Starr gets a ride home from her childhood friend, Khalil Harris. A police officer pulls them over, and then the worst happens — Khalil, an unarmed sixteen-year-old boy is shot and killed by the cops, with Starr as the sole witness.
Due to the dark, depressing, unfortunately realistic premise of this book, I was sure I would have a hard time getting through it. But boy, was I wrong! I was immediately grabbed, and though I finished this book days ago, it still hasn’t let me go. I just can’t stop thinking about it.
Starr’s narrative voice is fantastic. She sounds so real, and none of her narration or dialogue is overdone. She uses lots of slang and what some would call “ghetto talk,” as well as talks about things such as Tumblr and other social media, which I have a feeling will puzzle less hip or tech-savvy readers (… ironic that I used the word “hip” just now, isn’t it? … oh well). But for the target audience, she is perfectly connected and relatable.
In fact, re: the narration/dialogue, all the conversations are some of the most realistic conversations in much of fiction. So often, I feel like dialogue sounds forced or unnatural, because an author is trying to sound refined, or to fit an older style of speech (which seems to happen a lot in fantasy especially). But Starr, her family, her friends all sound as if their conversations have been transcribed from recordings of real people. They swear — there is a running gag about the youngest son and his father’s swear jar — they joke, they interrupt each other, and so on. Not to say this is the only YA book with realistic dialogue, but it was particularly evident to me because we so rarely see in popular literature an example of the way kids like Starr speak.
In fact, Starr, a black girl, finds herself noticing the way she speaks throughout this book. Going to a mostly white school called Williamson High, she becomes more mindful of how her manner of speaking and even her behavior changes; there is a “Williamson Starr,” separate from the rest of herself. As Starr gets older and more socially aware, she gradually gains awareness of this code-switching and wonders what it means for her. And that there is one of the great strengths of this book (though there are many): Starr’s navigation of who she is, as a black girl living in a world with white students, and a police force that would kill someone like her simply because of her skin color and the prejudices that remain attached to that.
And code-switching is not the only issue Starr becomes aware of. This book deals quite excellently with micro-aggressions. One of Starr’s friends from middle school says — as Starr notices for the first time — some veiled racist comments. Her coping with that is poignant and important, as is her “minority alliance” she makes with another friend, who is of Asian descent. That was one of my favorite moments too, the deal these two young girls make to defend each other against another girl saying hurtful, offensive things. It is a lesson many of us ought to learn, and it was written so well.
The issue of police brutality against black people was the theme I thought would be tough to read, but the way Thomas writes Starr’s struggle was so brilliant that I was not so much depressed as driven to desire change. Khalil’s death was so sad, and the grief resonates through these pages. However, as Starr’s father notes, we “can’t be silent” (171). And so Starr’s grief is channeled into activism, and her development over the course of the plot — dealing with a police interrogation, a jury, a television interview, and a protest — is so empowering and satisfying.
I’ve focused on Starr a lot so far in terms of characters, and while she is the… well, the star… the others in this book help make it a fantastic read. From Starr’s parents and their realistic and deeply loving relationship, to Starr’s friends of all races and their excellent conversations about anything from race to Tumblr to everything in between, to Chris and his sweet attempts to support his girlfriend as she deals with situations he cannot truly sympathize with, to the other minor characters who bring the world(s) of Williamson and Garden Heights to life — all these people comprise a truly stellar cast.
Ahem, star pun not intended.
I could probably discuss this book for twice the length of this review and more, but I think I’ve covered the main points. The themes are many, but strongly examined and portrayed: police violence, internalized racism, interracial relationships and their complexities, familial loyalty, activism, devotion to one’s origins, the differences in wealthy and poor people’s lives, and so on. The characters are all distinct, well-rounded, and I loved so many of them. The writing is absolutely wonderful. The plot is engaging, masterfully paced, and moving. You will feel so many emotions while reading this, and this book will make you think, sympathize, and — hopefully — desire to engage others in this ongoing discussion.
And can I just say, what we all need to take away from this book might be captured by something Starr’s father says: “we ain’t gotta live [in impoverished, oppressed areas] to change things, baby. We just gotta give a damn” (436).
I normally read books to escape reality, but I do not regret reading The Hate U Give. Quite the opposite, in fact. So if you’re worried about the dark, so-grounded-in-reality premise, don’t be. Yes, it’s a key feature of this book, but there is so much love in these pages too. Love in relationships, in friendships, and in communities. For this reason (and all the others I’ve mentioned in this review), The Hate U Give is without a doubt on my list of best books I’ve read this year. It’s touching and honest and enthralling and important and empowering and just really enjoyable.
Overall rating: 9.8/10
Have you read The Hate U Give? What did you think? If you haven’t read it, what are you still doing here? Go start reading!