In December, a suburban Houston school district yanked copies of the young-adult novel “The Hate U Give” from all 25 of its school libraries.
In January – after a student-led outcry – copies were back in the high schools of Katy, Texas, albeit paired with a parental consent form. The consternation began when a middle-school parent complained about profanity and drug use at a party depicted in the book’s opening scene.
Angie Thomas, who wrote that scene, had a few observations about her breakout book, which spent 38 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. It was arguably the young adult sensation of 2017.
‘There are 89 f-words in ‘The Hate U Give;’ I know because I counted them,” Thomas told an overflow crowd at the Cleveland Public Library. “And last year, more than 900 people were killed by police. People should care more about that number than the number of f-words.”
The novel, characterized by YA king John Green as a “classic for our times,” centers on Starr Carter, a 16-year-old growing up in a gritty neighborhood and navigating a preppy private high school.
“I went to a mostly white, upper-class Christian school in conservative Mississippi,” Thomas said of Belhaven University. “They love Jesus but they don’t want people to have rights. I had to be two Angies.”
Thomas, now 30, was warm and frank and proud, declaring her love for the Cleveland Cavaliers and describing a complex Mississippi heritage: saying y’all and having a mother who heard the shots that killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Yet Thomas said she grew up without anyone calling her the n-word.
In the second chapter of “The Hate U Give,” Starr is riding in a Chevy Impala alongside her childhood friend Khalil when he is pulled over and shot to death by a police officer.
The novel germinated in Thomas’ anger over the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old shot in the back on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform. It began as a short story, her senior project as a creative writing major at Belhaven.
By the time Thomas finished writing “The Hate U Give” three years ago, it had ignited a bidding war among 13 publishing houses. And Amandla Stenberg had been cast as Starr in the Fox 2000 film, a decision that inflamed some readers who pictured a darker-skinned girl as they read the book. Thomas responded on Twitter that she was not involved in casting, but that she “supports Stenberg 1000%.”
“So much of her story is Starr’s story,” Thomas said. “But that’s Amandla’s story to tell. I know colorism is an issue, but I watched her on the set in Atlanta and she understood so much. She made me cry. I hope people will give Amandla a chance.”
In an aside, Thomas praised “Black Panther,” which dominated the weekend box office. “If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you doing with your life?” she enthused. “It’s going to change the film industry. It’s already changed mine (movie). I can’t say how, but it is.”
As she does in most of her ports-of-call, Thomas explained the title. The first letter of each word spells thug, a reference to the tattoo across Tupac Shakur’s abdomen. He explained it as “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fxxxs Everyone” or T.H.U.G L.I.F.E.
Teenaged Angie idolized the music of Tupac, and saw hip-hop as art-as-activism. She had a short-lived stint as a teen rapper, calling herself Young Short-A. And she encouraged her audience – packed with youth from throughout Cleveland – to see themselves as roses in concrete, a reference to Tupac sampling Nikki Giovanni.
About 500 Clevelanders turned out to hear and cheer Thomas, whose next novel, “On the Come Up,” is due out in June. She returned the crowd’s affection: “You drive trends. You change language. Hip-hop was started by teenagers, 15-, 16-year-olds in the Bronx in a basement with a turntable and a mic.”
Without embellishment, she declared her intent: “I am here to beg you to change the world.”