“When I was 12, my parents had two talks with me,” narrator Starr Carter recalls early on in Angie Thomas’ smart, unflinching, and fiercely topical coming-of-age novel. “One was the usual birds and bees.” The second? What to do if she is pulled over by a police officer: “‘Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.'”
By 16, Starr is used to that kind of dissonance; it’s something she confronts every day, toggling between the bleak realities of black life in Garden Heights and the leafy privilege of Williamson, a private prep school located approximately 45 minutes and a thousand light-years away. At home, she’s the wry, tough-talking girl who teases her brothers, obsesses over Air Jordans, and fills in shifts at the convenience store her dad, once a gangland legend, has turned into a neighborhood anchor. At school, she speaks fluent Hogwarts and claims a favorite Jonas brother, carefully editing herself for any stray trace of slang or back talk that might give someone a reason to call her “ghetto.”
But when her childhood best friend is fatally shot during a routine traffic stop, his life bleeding out on the pavement as she looks on helplessly from the passenger seat, the chasm between her two worlds only grows. Sitting in the school cafeteria with her classmates just days after Khalil’s death, she thinks numbly, “I hope none of them asks me about my spring break. They went to Taipei, the Bahamas, Harry Potter World. I stayed in the hood and saw a cop kill my friend.” And when the case becomes a national flash point, the breach only grows, forcing hard choices on both sides: If she testifies will it actually bring justice for Khalil, or only reopen a still-raw wound and send her further into herself?
The Hate U Give arrives with the kind of frenzied hype—more than a dozen publishing houses battled for the manuscript; the film rights have already been sold—that can easily sink a first-time novelist. But Thomas delivers with supreme style and self-assurance, cannily balancing pointed examinations of gun violence, racial profiling, and political activism with the everyday concerns of ordinary teendom (boys, clothes, the profound embarrassment of watching your parents make out). And she takes care to give the reader real people, not merely props in a modern morality play: Skin color doesn’t dictate character any more than a badge does, and choices aren’t strictly good or bad, they’re just a consequence of living. Hate engages in a crucial and strenuously current conversation, but it also touches a more universal pulse—digging beneath hashtags and headlines to craft a portrait of culture and community and young womanhood that feels as fresh and necessary as Starr’s indelible voice.