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When “The Hate U Give,” based on the bestselling teen novel, opens in theaters this weekend, it is poised to add to an already complicated national discussion about race relations. Although embraced by educators and book critics, the novel – which is informed by the Black Lives Matter movement – has also been banned for its language and criticized by police officers for its potential to create distrust of them. The release of the movie coincides with the investigation of a Dallas police officer accused of shooting her neighbor recently and the outcome of the trial of a Chicago officer who fatally shot a 17-year-old in 2014. “The Hate U Give” resonates with young people in a way few books do, says Carol Jago, a veteran teacher and literacy expert, largely because it is told from the perspective of a thoughtful young black woman trying to navigate two communities in the aftermath of a friend’s death. “Good stories don’t take a side,” Ms. Jago says. “They show you a slice of life and then invite you to say, ‘Well, what do you think? Where do you stand?’ ”
In 2015, aspiring author Angie Thomas turned to Twitter for advice. Would a young adult novel that deals with a sensitive current issue, like the Black Lives Matter movement, be a “no-no,” she wondered.
Her future literary agent, Brooks Sherman, tweeted back that same day: “For me, no subject should be off-limits in children’s books.” It was the push Ms. Thomas needed to move forward, and just two weeks later, more than a dozen publishing houses fought over rights to her book, “The Hate U Give,” in a heated auction.
Since the book’s debut in 2017, 1.5 million copies have been sold in North America. The movie version, set to open Friday, is poised to bring the novel’s race-relations themes to a wider audience and add to an already complicated national discussion. Although embraced by many educators and book critics, “The Hate U Give” has also been banned for its language and criticized by police officers for its potential to create distrust of them. The release of the movie version coincides with the investigation of Dallas officer Amber Guyger – accused of shooting her neighbor – and the outcome of the trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.
“There’s a way in which, assuming the verdict [of the Van Dyke case] is reached in the coming days, this movie will remind people that we are still very much in the era of racial justice protests against state violence...,” says Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., speaking before the Van Dyke verdict was reached Friday.
A familiar plot
“The Hate U Give” reflects Thomas’s reaction to the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man whose death led to riots in Oakland, Calif. In her story, a young black teenager is shot by a white officer who mistakes a hairbrush for a gun. The protagonist, 16-year-old Starr Carter, who is also black, witnesses the event and must decide whether to speak up or stay silent, a choice that will affect her community, family, and friendships at her white suburban high school.
Starr’s story resonates with young people in a way that few books do, says Carol Jago, associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Part of its appeal is its ability to bring the reader into Starr’s world, looking out from her vantage point as she navigates the aftermath of her friend’s death.
“Good stories don’t take a side. They show you a slice of life and then invite you to say, well what do you think? Where do you stand?” Ms. Jago says.
Professor Muhammad adds that “The Hate U Give” will reach people who have perhaps not tuned into the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The book – and to some degree the movie – has been read and will be read by students in all-white spaces, where otherwise the urgency of these issues has not affected them personally,” Muhammad says. He sees it as a vehicle to raise awareness in adults as well. “[O]ne can always hope that good storytelling and works of art can speak to people when otherwise they might choose to be deaf, dumb, or blind to the problem,” he adds.
Beyond its racial themes, the novel has been compared to fantasy books like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” where strong young women battle established systems. “ ‘The Hate U Give’ is, yes, a novel about race – but it is also a dystopian young adult novel that happens to be set in reality,” writes Los Angeles Times critic-at-large, Adriana Ramírez. “A student in my class, Nicole, stood up one day and asked why Katniss [Everdeen] was white. She made the point that right now, the people she knows most like Katniss are the black girls in her neighborhood. ‘Where I grew up, it’s always “The Hunger Games.” ’ ”
An opportunity for affirmation
For readers and viewers who already walk in Starr’s shoes, the story can be an affirmation of their identities and the struggles they experience. Bridget Jarrett, a district librarian in Jarrell, Texas, says she knows of a middle-schooler who read the book five times. The student, who is biracial, has attended the same small private school since kindergarten, where classmates have called her “Oreo” and other derogatory names.
“She told me she read it five times because she understands the pull that Starr felt to be part of two different worlds, to be black but also to not be black, and to be as nonblack as possible around her private school friends,” says Ms. Jarrett. “It’s speaking to who she is as a person.”
The book, a bestseller, has been well-received but is not without critics. In the city of Katy, Texas, former superintendent Lance Hindt banned the book districtwide in November 2017 after a parent complained about its explicit language, discussion of drug use, and sexual content. (At least one activist argued that other books in the district’s collection contained these same elements, such as “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton and some of Shakespeare’s works, according to the Houston Chronicle.)
Elsewhere, in South Carolina, a local police union issued a complaint to Wando High School in Mount Pleasant in June 2018 over its inclusion of “The Hate U Give” in its summer reading list. Union leader John Blackmon said that the book was “almost an indoctrination of distrust of police” – even though it includes a character, Uncle Carlos, who acts as a father figure to Starr and is also a police officer. The school did not end up pulling the book.
Jarrett says this kind of reaction is common, especially for works that disrupt the status quo. Books like the Harry Potter series, “A Wrinkle in Time,” and even “Charlotte’s Web” have been banned at certain points in time, she notes, but generally become more accepted as opinions evolve.
“[In this case], I think it was about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the story it was portraying made people uncomfortable,” she says. “As time goes on, I don’t think this book will be banned in places.”
Advanced reviews of the movie have been mostly positive. Even so, Jago at UCLA has a concern: Will it be so good that it discourages kids from reading the book, as was the case with some Harry Potter fans?
“I don’t blame Angie Thomas for having a movie made,” she says, “but I’m an English teacher, and my first priority is getting kids’ noses in books.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct town in Texas where Bridget Jarrett is a librarian.