Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.
Whenever I start hearing some buzz about a new YA novel I tend to be intrigued but skeptical. In the case of The Hate U Give this was emphasized by the fact that every review I saw trickle in seemed to open with “Believe the hype!” But I started listening to the audio version because the book’s premise seemed timely and I was hoping beyond hope that the book could live up to the talk surrounding it. So…
Believe the hype.
I could not stop listening to this book. I ended up listening to all 11 hours and 40 minutes in roughly 5 days and am already planning to buy copies as gifts and lender copies. It’s that incredible.
While the main plot of the book is the shooting of Khalil, this book manages to be about so much more than police shootings and the protests which many of us are now accustomed to seeing and reading about. It’s hard to think of a way to describe this book other than as a celebration of blackness wrapped up in the all too familiar narrative of a police shooting. It balances depictions of the black community, exposing the realities of life in a low-income neighborhood but embracing the negative and the positive, thereby avoiding stereotypes and creating a narrative which embraces multiple levels of experience. The book also acknowledges and emphasizes a number of black leaders in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. such as Malcolm X and Huey Newton. By including other major figures, the author again shows the diversity of the black community and their actions rather than labeling them as one collective united behind Dr. King.
The main character, Starr, is also used to highlight the disparity between communities. At her predominantly white school, it’s expected that she’ll date the only other black student in her grade. She’s a talented basketball player and has a clear group of friends, but she also has rules. She considers herself an entirely different person at school and to prevent herself from being seen as “ghetto” or as the “Angry Black Woman” doesn’t use slang or create confrontations. The character’s inner conflict as her worlds begin to collide is palpable as she has to make decisions about whether her fellow students are truly her friends or if they are even the “good” people they claim to be. This also plays out in her neighborhood as more people begin to question her motives when she doesn’t speak openly, despite being the only witness. YA is often about finding your identity and Starr’s journey takes her along that familiar path but in the midst of extensive external and internal conflict.
There are so many other amazing things I could talk about: the role of Tupac in the book (he inspired the title), the depictions of a strong family, navigating friendships, nuances of gang life, drug dealers, and drug users. The Hate U Give manages to encompass an incredible number of stories and characters but at no point does this sprawling world feel anything but Real.
That being said, there are a couple of things that I thought could have been improved.
We don’t, as a reader, have a lot of time with Khalil in the present. His death happens early in the book and most of the time we encounter him in the memories of the characters. While the pain and memories are well rendered, if Khalil had been alive for a few more chapters, I think the reader could have formed a better emotional connection to him. I also think that’s sort of the point: we shouldn’t have to have an emotional connection to someone to believe their death is unjustified and horrific.
I’m also not a big fan of Chris, Starr’s boyfriend. He’s not a full blown manic pixie dream boy, which is refreshing, but I found him slightly annoying. Again, that’s fine, I’m not Starr, I don’t have to date him. However, as a character, he plays a major role in the text as a stand in for members of the white community who are willing to learn and become allies, because of this he serves as a direct foil for Hailey (the text’s token white feminist).
Like many other YA books that make a major splash (such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), this book will probably be critiqued for its use of profanity and depictions of sexual encounters (although, for the record, the only sex which occurs in the book is between the adult characters). But Starr’s encounters with Chris and questions about whether she’s ready to have sex also bring a valid voice into the world of YA. She doesn’t romanticize these encounters but, because of her own family’s history with teen pregnancy, is rational and hesitant to embark into situations she may regret. She’s strong and doesn’t allow herself to bow to expectations. And her voice, profanity and all, remains believable.
It’s rare to read a book where even the points which I think fall a bit short also serve such clear narrative purpose.
I haven’t been purposefully vague about any elements of the plot, but the strength of this book is in its reflections of reality, so… the ending won’t surprise you. However, one of the most powerful moments comes in the closing. I played it over and over again:
“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending. It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about way more than that though. It’s about Seven, Sekani, Kenya, DeVante. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first. Emmett. The messed up part? There are so many more.”
It’s a call to action and remembrance, solidifying the work as, in its own way, a piece of protest and a call for reform.
I cannot recommend this book enough: Five Bards
Thanks so much to Midsummer contributor Valerie for submitting this review.