Author Angie Thomas earned acclaim for her debut young adult novel The Hate U Give, which was published in February of 2017 and shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas's novel tells the story of Starr Carter, a black teenager who is moved to become an activist after she witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend, Kahlil, at the hands of a white police officer. Told from Starr's point of view, the book grapples with difficult and timely issues such as racism, police violence, and injustice, helping to open a dialogue among readers across the country. Thomas's much-anticipated book sparked a bidding war among 13 publishers, ultimately landing Thomas a six-figure, two-book deal with the HarperCollins imprint Balzer & Bray. The Hate U Give did not disappoint, selling 100,000 copies within the first month and earning a place on the National Book Awards long list that year. Thomas's second book, On the Come Up, was set for publication in 2019.
Had a Talent for Storytelling
Thomas was born in 1988 in Jackson, Mississippi, and grew up poor, raised by her mother and grandmother, in the predominantly black Georgetown neighborhood. She first experienced gun violence at age six. "I was at the park, and two drug dealers decided to recreate the wild west with a shootout," Thomas recalled in an interview with the London Guardian. "I ended up running out of the crossfire, and, the very next day, my mom took me to the library, because she wanted me to see that there was more to the world than what I saw that day."
It was clear early on that Thomas had a gift for storytelling. She wrote her first story--a piece of Mickey Mouse fan fiction--soon after her mother introduced her to the library. When she was in the third grade, her writing talent so impressed her teacher that she was allowed to read her stories to the class every week. Despite her love of stories, as a teenager, Thomas admitted in an interview with WBUR, she "hated reading" because so few books reflected her own life. "I'd go in the bookstore, in the library, and I'm looking at the books and it's always another white girl in distress," she told WBUR. "I'm like, 'How many problems do you have?' I have stuff that I'm going through. Where are the books for me?" Thomas found that rap and hip-hop spoke to her more than books. "For me, hip-hop was a mirror. I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book," she told the New York Times. As a teenager Thomas at first aspired to become a rapper herself, and she was even featured in the magazine Right-On, although her music career never took off.
Thomas enrolled at Belhaven University, a conservative, Christian, mostly white school in Jackson. There she began to take writing more seriously. Initially she wrote mainly fantasy, but a professor encouraged her to draw more on her own experience. "He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered," she recalled to the New York Times.
Channeled Anger into Short Story
Thomas was inspired to begin writing the story that would eventually become The Hate U Give in 2009, after the real-life killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a white transit police officer in Oakland, California. (The incident later was dramatized in the 2013 film Fruitvale Station). The narrative that emerged from Grant's killing sparked anger and frustration in Thomas, particularly the idea, expressed by some of her white classmates, that he "deserved it." "One thing that stood out about Oscar was the way people talked about his past," Thomas explained to the Guardian. "At school, people were talking about what he had done, that he may have deserved it, that he was in the wrong. But Oscar could have been any of the young men I get up with, who were maybe doing things they shouldn't have been doing. They are all [seen as] thugs. They are put on trial sometimes, for their own death."
She channeled her emotions into a short story about 16-year-old Starr Carter, a black girl who is navigating between two very different worlds: the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and the upscale, predominantly white suburban prep school that she attends. Those worlds collide after Starr witnesses the death of her friend, Kahlil, who is shot by a white police officer during a traffic stop. Starr is drawn toward activism as she struggles with how to tell Kahlil's story, even as she copes with the mundane aspects of adolescence, such as boys and friends.
Thomas initially wrote the story for her senior project, but she struggled with the boundaries of the short story. Her professor suggested that she could later turn it into a novel. After graduating from Belhaven with a bachelor of fine arts degree in creative writing in 2011, Thomas put the work aside for a time. "I wanted to make sure I approached it not just in anger, but with love even," she told her hometown Clarion-Ledger in 2016.
Published Debut Novel
She was moved to start working on the story again in 2015, following the shooting deaths of other young African Americans, including Trayvon Martin in Florida; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. Thomas turned her short story into a 444-page novel aimed at young adults. The novel's title, The Hate U Give, was inspired by the rapper Tupac Shakur, whose only album, Thug Life, was said to be an abbreviation of "The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody." Thomas reached out on Twitter to a literary agent, Brooks Sherman, who was excited about the book after reading only the first chapter. Thomas feared that she would have a hard time finding a publisher because of the book's provocative subject matter, but in fact, publishers were eager for a book that dealt with the issue of police violence in a thoughtful way. After a bidding war among 13 publishers, Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, signed Thomas to a two-book deal reportedly worth six figures.
The Hate U Give was published in February of 2017 and became an instant hit, debuting at number one on the New York Times's young adult best-seller list and staying on the list for more than 50 weeks. Although some in the publishing world branded The Hate U Give a "Black Lives Matter novel," many more critics noted that such a label did not do the book justice: Thomas's skill as a writer is that she makes Starr's story universal and relatable, regardless of whether the reader shares her background. For example, Adrianna Ramirez in the Los Angeles Times noted that "Starr's story is familiar to us all. The politics of Black Lives Matter inform the story but do not define it; what defines the story is Starr Carter, a teenage girl fighting the system." Likewise, in the Atlantic, Anna Diamond wrote that "Thomas's intimate writing style and the novel's first-person perspective taps fully into Starr's shock, pain, and outrage during the shooting and its aftermath. As a result, The Hate U Give allows some readers to see the complexity of their lives mirrored in literature; for others who may be removed from Starr's experience or haven't lived through similar tragedies, it can help generate deeper understanding."
Thomas's novel arrived at a time when the publishing industry was struggling to address a lack of diversity, particularly the dearth of stories for children and young adults by authors of color. According to data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 2016, out of approximately 3,400 children's books published that year, only 92 were written by black authors--roughly the same number as a decade earlier. Since the publication of The Hate U Give, Thomas has become a symbol of change in the publishing world, touring the country and meeting with groups of students, many of whom told Thomas that they had never met an author who looked like them. Thomas hoped that the incredible success of her book would help change the publishing industry's view of black readers. "Publishing does not target black kids like they should because they stereotypically think that black kids don't read," she said in an interview with the website The Cut. "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."
The Hate U Give was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2017. The following year Thomas received the William C. Morris Award, given to a first-time author writing for teens, and The Hate U Give was named an Honor Book for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and the Coretta Scott King Awards given by the American Library Association.
Film rights to Thomas's novel were optioned by Fox 2000, and a big-screen adaptation was already in the works in 2018, with a cast that was slated to include Amandla Stenberg, Issa Rae, and Regina King. Thomas's second novel, titled On the Come Up, was set for release in February of 2019.
Born Angela Thomas in 1988 in Jackson, MS; daughter of Julia Thomas. Education: Belhaven University, BFA, creative writing, 2011. Addresses: Literary agent--Brooks Sherman, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, 285 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017. Web--http://http://angiethomas.com/. Twitter--@angiecthomas.
William C. Morris Award, Young Adult Library Services Association, 2018, for The Hate U Give; Honor Book, Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, Booklist, 2018, for The Hate U Give; Author Honor Book, Coretta Scott King Awards, American Library Association, 2018, for The Hate U Give.
- The Hate U Give, Balzer & Bray, 2017.
- Atlantic, March 28, 2017.
- Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), March 6, 2016; March 9, 2017.
- Guardian (London), March 26, 2017.
- Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2017.
- New York Times, March 19, 2017.
- Evans, Dayna, "Talking with Angie Thomas, Author of the Best-Selling YA Novel Inspired by Black Lives Matter," The Cut, March 20, 2017, https://www.thecut.com/2017/03/angie-thomas-the-hate-u-give-interview-ya-novel.html (accessed April 15, 2018).
- "'The Hate U Give' Author Angie Thomas on YA Fiction, Being Black in America and More," WBUR, February 26, 2018, http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/02/26/the-hate-u-give-angie-thomas (accessed April 15, 2018).
- Philyaw, Deesha, "One-on-One with 'The Hate U Give' Novelist Angie Thomas," Ebony, March 14, 2017, http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/the-hate-u-give-angie-thomas (accessed April 15, 2018).