The Hate U Give

In a fairly rare occurrence, we all three read today’s book BEFORE the scheduled post date, so today’s post has all of us discussing it together, just like a RealCommittee might, if six people were missing. Sarah: Friends. Friends. Is this the book to beat this year? To be honest, it’s hard to know where to start here. […]

The Hate U Give cover imageIn a fairly rare occurrence, we all three read today’s book BEFORE the scheduled post date, so today’s post has all of us discussing it together, just like a RealCommittee might, if six people were missing.

Sarah: Friends. Friends. Is this the book to beat this year? To be honest, it’s hard to know where to start here. Is it with the critical acclaim? Because SIX STARS! THAT IS THE MOST OF STARS! ONE OF TWO TITLES WITH SO MANY! Or perhaps we should start with the pacey, plotty plot? (Because those types of reads are my favorite.) Is it with the fact that, yes, this book flows and moves, and still takes the time to develop the characters and write the heck out of a first person teen perspective? That voice, voice, voice. It’s immediate, it’s emotional, it’s self aware. It’s possible we could start with the fact that this is absolutely a book about the today and the now, and it’s also filled with universal questions about growing up, about life and death, and about our responsibilities to our communities, to our friends, to our families, and to ourselves.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, February 2017
Reviewed from all the versions

Karyn: OK, but what about the National Book Award snub? Because YES to everything you are saying, but 5 other books just beat it for one of the biggest honors available to YA lit. Is this book too big to win? I worry about that. But also I worry that it’s so big that it’s going to drown out other books, and I did think this was amazing, but I’m not sure — from a purely literary mindset — that it’s actually the best of the best. It’s well written but for me what nailed it wasn’t the writing but the topicalness. This is a book about now, a book with more appeal than any book we’ve seen in probably the last five years at least — no, six years, this is John Green-level love and popularity — it’s important without being didactic (well, other than any time Maverick says more than a sentence at a time, more on that below). The writing is strong, but is it better than everything else? I think this deserved every star it got — AND I don’t think it’s the best writing we’ve seen this year, even if it’s the most important. (And really, I still don’t know where importance belongs at the table; it’s a big question, like appeal, that every committee has to grapple with.)

Sarah: So let’s look with our Printz-glasses and bring in some of the criteria. What about that pacing, about that plot? This is a read that just doesn’t let go; it starts, you’re gripped, and then you hang on for a compelling, emotional ride. Starr’s journey is real and detailed, her emotions are deep. As she goes through the narrative, making choices, her decisions drive the story forward. Things don’t stop; in fact her emotions are enhanced by the action of the plot. Let me be clear, this isn’t an intense action ride of a story; it’s eventful in a realistic way. Things happen, Starr reacts, Starr makes a choice, more things happen as a result. It’s a long story but (to me) it never felt too long.

Joy: This was a fast read for me as well. And that’s notable for me because I need lots of breaks from emotionally heavy books. Angie Thomas balances the extreme tragedy and stress that Starr feels in its aftermath with love and warmth in family scenes and even humor. Although the decisions are always her own, Starr isn’t alone in her journey at all. She has support and that feeling carries through to the reader. So yeah, while it’s not necessarily the most sophisticated literature of the year, I do think it’s masterfully crafted when you look at how all of the elements fit together. That balance of tone doesn’t work if I don’t believe the characters and I don’t believe the characters if the plot has holes, and on and on…

Karyn: I’m going to play contrarian here, because this is as close as we get to modeling what a conversation at the table could look like, and there’s always someone who raises the cons of even the greatest books. It does move fast, and mostly the balance between the big issues and the little ones works; this is a more real (and more notable) book for the ways in which the relationships are foregrounded. But I did see some authorial voice trickling through in how perfectly balanced it all was; Officer Cruise kills Khalil, but also there’s Uncle Carlos, who is a good cop. There’s Hailey and then there’s Maya. There’s King and Maverick, Brenda and Tammy; maybe this is mirroring as a motif but it struck me as calculated in a way that didn’t always work; I noticed it over and over even as I frantically turned pages to see what would happen. And as a reader I do not care at all, because this is a powerful read and I was all in all the way through. But as a Pyrite/fake Printz committee member, I don’t know how to balance that against a book that came across as more organic.

Sarah: Or! Maybe all those mirroring characters are more about how Starr sees the people in her life? In which case, it’s less about those characters themselves and more about how she understands and makes sense of all the people in her world.* We are seeing these people through her eyes, through her perspective on them, and not through their own understandings of themselves. And the characterization overall is really strong. Starr herself, of course, but a first person read will do that. Her family and her friends don’t get nearly as much page-time, but overall are extremely well developed. DeVante is a fairly minor character, but we get to know him and begin rooting for him. Same with Kenya, with Maya, with Seven. This is actually  a huge cast, and for the most part, they’re solidly constructed, real-seeming people with their own internal lives complicating their own journeys.

Karyn: I agree that Starr is a strong character, although I think her emotional arc is compressed to fit the narrative; there are moments where we see she’s already (pre page 1) started to take a hard look at the systemic oppression around her and think about where her voice fits in (like the Tumblr post that points, eventually, to the end of her friendship with Hailey) and what it means to be between two worlds and code switch daily. So the degree to which she needs to learn and on occasion be schooled (by Maverick) within the on-page action is a device to make her journey more accessible to the readers, but it’s not always totally smooth. I totally agree that the secondary teen characters are fantastic — DeVante and Chris, in particular, could so easily be stereotypes but Thomas makes them real enough to transcend that (well, mostly; Chris still felt a little artificial, but maybe that’s just because I’m trained to assume perfect guys** are not possible in YA lit). And watching Starr navigate these relationships, which I already noted as a strength, is significantly deepened by the fact that the secondary characterization is so strong. I’ll argue that the secondary adults are less strongly written — Maverick and Uncle Carlos both sacrifice character for story significance, especially when they speak, but fortunately we see enough through Starr’s love and memories for them to feel real enough despite this. The tertiary adults, on the other hand, provide a great chorus of voices (Mr. Lewis and Iesha are the most complex and interesting, although I liked the moment I realized Iesha was saving them better as an insight than as something Starr explicitly explains).

Joy: I want to talk about setting for a moment. The most fascinating thing came up when we discussed this at our book club: most of us thought Springfield Gardens was modeled after a place near where we grew up. Angie Thomas’s descriptions fit for Queens, NY; Oakland, CA; Atlanta, GA; and possibly other cities I’m forgetting. We all thought it was our city not necessarily because of geographic cues (although that was partially the case for me) but because of the sense of community she depicts in Starr’s neighborhood, and the way she contrasts that with the suburbs where Uncle Carlos lives, as well as Starr’s school. I recognized the differences in the feeling of safety and the maintenance of the buildings. I think many of us recognized different cities because Thomas was able to capture the essential points of each place and write with specificity.

Sarah: Joy, yes! The characters do a fantastic job of making the place come alive. And because it’s first person, I do think we get a really organic sense of place through Starr’s eyes. It’s subtle, but I would argue that setting is there, and we see it through Williamson Starr’s eyes, or Garden Heights Starr’s eyes. She says “eww” not “ill” and from that we understand the setting. I’m also tying this to first person narration and the idea above about Starr’s perspective providing a few sets of mirroring characters. Her understanding of the characters around her also adds to our understanding of the setting. The way she understands the people in her life is tied to the way she understands the places in her life. And we see it all through the organic mixing together of all these complicated ideas as it comes out through her voice telling the story. That voice, that voice, that voice. (At least, that’s what I would argue, if I were at the table. Or the arguing type.)

Karyn: You have to be the arguing type here, it’s how we get to consensus.

Joy: While I don’t know how things will shake out at the YMA’s, I do know that this was one of two books this year that I read without knowing anything about the plot in advance. However, of the two, it’s the book that I appreciate more now that I know the plot (as for the other book, I think knowing the story in advance would’ve taken away from the experience and that points to flaws to me, but I digress). I didn’t know that this book would deal with police violence AT ALL. Throughout the first chapter, I kept thinking, “what a charming coming-of-age romance.” I was instantly in love with Starr, intrigued by Khalil, and preparing for a story about a girl caught between two worlds, trying to navigate her way safely. And then Khalil’s car is pulled over and I felt short of breath. The change happens so subtly that it’s only in the aftermath that I saw the signs that were laid out for the story to go in that direction. We’re seeing everything through Starr’s eyes though and she certainly wasn’t expecting the evening to end with her childhood friend dead. This shift in tone is handled so well that for a reader like me, who wasn’t expecting it, it hits like a ton of bricks. Now, when I’ve reread those early chapters, I see how knowing it in advance builds the sense of dread, because now I’m thinking “it’s going to happen soon, soon.” The dramatic irony is strong and although you can still get caught up in the normal teen drama of the party, knowing what’s coming adds a layer of tragedy from the start. In the end, it’s not really a shift in tone at all, merely a peeling back of a layer of Starr’s world, seeing the violence and tragedy that has existed in her life since she was a child. I’m impressed with Thomas’s skill here and I’ll be curious to see if it’s recognized by others.

Karyn: I know I said above that the mirroring was too obvious at times, but actually the contrast between Natasha and Khalil opens up great lines for a conversation; it makes it easy to fall into the trap of innocent/guilty (Natasha was a 10-year-old playing; Khalil was a 16-year-old doing something with drugs and gangs) and then the text pushes back on that so that the (probably white) reader who falls into that pervasive, problematic mindset has to confront it — this same kind of overt confrontation happens in-text as well, when Kenya calls Starr on being ashamed. It’s been there throughout, but this is a moment where being explicit is necessary and strong writing; the pairing of Natasha and Khalil make the meta and in-textual collide and call the reader out as Kenya called Starr out, to similar effect.

Sarah: Now I’m just thinking aloud (but with my fingers). What could take this book down? Because I think this is the sort of book that invites consensus. Which is how Printz works — it’s the best book that the entire committee can agree to. I wouldn’t be surprised (I’d be pretty thrilled) to see it get a medal.

Karyn: Despite my contrarian perspective, I certainly won’t be upset if this gets a medal — and if it doesn’t get a Morris shortlist nod at least, I will be outraged. But I think what will take it down are the ways in which it is a debut; Thomas is a super writer who maybe is still finding her stride. There’s the issue of balance and the ways in which things are too neat; there are one or two minor issues that might be tie-breakers (I’m pretty sure Sekani is mentioned as being 9 and then as being a year younger than cousin Daniel, who is 9; why do Starr and Sekani code switch and deal with the discomfort but Seven seems to balance Williamson and Garden Heights easily? Does it make sense given what we see of and hear from Maverick that he paid Iesha for sex? Again, minor and in some cases petty and in other cases committee members might have answers, but once hair splitting is the name of the game everything lands on the table). Then there’s the occasional didacticism that is probably needed for those reading this as a window but is a little clumsy. On the other hand (I’m feeling very Sarah, with five or six hands), that this novel seems to be working for readers both as window and mirror is pretty darn amazing and rare, and I could easily switch sides and argue for that being a strength that absolutely outweighs the cons I raised. Plus it opens such important conversations by being about important things that are happening right now, and are relevant; this takes the news and makes it personal, and that’s definitely something.

Joy: Following up on windows and mirrors, I agree that one of the most impressive elements of this book is that Thomas is able to speak to both readers who will see both windows and mirrors. This works because Starr’s code-switching is so deftly handled in the text that pretty much any reader, looking through her eyes, will see either a world that is unfamiliar or familiar. It’s a product Thomas’s authentic writing for setting and characters in both urban and suburban spaces and that’s an impressive feat.

Conclusion time, because otherwise we could go on all day. This is a book that we can see going either way, as we always can, but in this case at least two of us are pretty definite that it SHOULD land on the table, sticker color TBD. What do you all think?What could take this book down? Because this is the sort of book that invites consensus — but will that be consensus for or against? And speaking of consensus…do you think it’ll take our Pyrite?

*Karyn: This may have just convinced me to give this one of my three Pyrite votes, although I need to look at the book again to see if the text supports that reading. Certainly for Uncle Carlos and Maverick, whose juxtaposition and expository roles make them weaker characters, this makes so much sense.
Sarah: Always trust a Hufflepuffian when they bother to argue?
Joy: Stray but not irrelevant thought: Hogwarts houses as gangs is kind of the greatest idea ever. I’ll never think of my Ravenclaw pride in quite the same way.

**Joy: I don’t think Chris is a perfect guy though. He’s charming but it seemed like he was borderline festhizing black culture and that’s not cool.
Karyn: Ok, so I also thought that, but within the text it seems like he’s set up to be perfect. Hmmm.

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