This novel is all the rage at school. Technically it’s a young adult novel, centering around a teenage girl, but it doesn’t have that sometimes cheesy young adult feel to it. I think it can be eye opening for adults as well, and especially adults who work with or parent teens. The story revolves around Starr, a high school sophomore, who lives in a poor all-black neighborhood but goes to school in a private mostly white high school in the suburbs. Her parents don’t want to abandon the neighborhood like so many have, yet they want their kids to get the best education. Thus, she straddles these two worlds every day. And she does so seemingly gracefully. Until her childhood best friend, Khalil, is shot by the police, a scene she witnesses because she’s in the car with him. While her two worlds were never as seamless as they appeared at first, they suddenly collide after this traumatic event. For a long time, no one knows that she’s the witness–that she was the one in the car with him. And because they don’t know this, she endures racist and denigrating comments from friends at school, many of whom refer to her childhood friend as a thug, a gangbanger, and a drug dealer. They assume he “had it coming.”
Certainly the conflicts–police brutality, racial prejudice and distrust, innocent verdict leading to neighborhood violence–are not new. They come from today’s headlines. But Thomas has created such compelling characters, such raw emotion, that we are captivated by this story. As a parent, the part I appreciated most was Starr’s relationship with her parents: they love and support their kids outwardly and unconditionally, but they’ll call them out, without mincing words, whenever it’s appropriate. They say exactly what they feel, and I appreciate their honesty, their wisdom, and their powerful show of emotion, whether it’s love or outrage. At one point her mom is talking about various complicated relationships and says to her, “At an early age, I learned that people make mistakes, and you have to decide if their mistakes are bigger than your love for them” (264). I had to read that line twice.
The title of the book is a story in itself, and I’d explain it except this reviewer from The Atlantic does it much better than I: “Thomas’s book derives its title from the rapper Tupac Shakur’s philosophy of THUG LIFE—which purportedly stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”—and it’s a motif the novel returns to a few times. The acronym tattooed across Tupac’s abdomen could be read as an embrace of a dangerous lifestyle. But, as Khalil explains to Starr, just minutes before the cop pulls them over, it’s really an indictment of systemic inequality and hostility: “What society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out.” (read the full Atlantic review here).