If there were a poster child for the Flying Start awards, given by PW semiannually for the most striking debuts in children’s and YA books, it just might be Angie Thomas, a Mississippi church secretary who wrote a cri de coeur on race in America during her lunch hours at the bishopric.
Few in recent memory have had a debut like Thomas. Four months after its release, The Hate U Give (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Feb.) is in its 13th printing, with more than 200,000 copies in print. Rights to the novel—inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement—have been sold into 26 territories. Everybody loved it: The Hate U Give received eight starred reviews. A film adaptation is in development at Fox 2000, with George Tillman directing and Amandla Stenberg cast in the leading role.
“A book I was so afraid of has touched so many people, and more than that, has shattered so many myths,” says Thomas. “The word was books about black kids or with black people on the cover didn’t sell. That black kids don’t read. But my book is showing that if we give them books they see themselves in, they will.”
“Yes, afraid. Terrified,” she says. Brooks Sherman of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, who is now Thomas’s agent, was holding a Q&A on Twitter, and Thomas wanted desperately to ask if her subject matter was appropriate for a YA novel. “I remember being too terrified to even just send the tweet. I was at work and called my mom for advice and she said, ‘Hit send. Now.’ ”
Thomas did. And Sherman responded immediately that no subject was inappropriate for a YA novel.
That was 2015. Thomas finished her manuscript and submitted it to We Need Diverse Books for its inaugural Walter Dean Myers grants. The $2,000 she won was enough to replace the laptop she had used to write her first draft, which was held together with duct tape. Sherman agreed to represent her. Balzer + Bray won the book at a 13-house auction.
The Hate U Give centers on Starr Carter, who has to navigate between the poverty-stricken neighborhood where she lives and the suburban school she attends. (Thomas herself graduated from a mostly white college located in an upper-class neighborhood.) Starr’s life is upended when she is the sole witness to a police shooting that kills her best friend from childhood, Khalil. Khalil may or may not have belonged to a gang, and may or may not have dealt drugs, but his death at a routine traffic stop affects Starr deeply, helping her understand why communities riot and how important activism is when wider society can’t see past stereotypes.
“The subject is touchy, I know. If you say ‘black lives matter’ to 30 different people, you’re going to get 30 different reactions,” she says. “I specifically did not want to write an anti-cop book. I wanted to write an anti–police brutality book. A book to help people understand my world. But I was afraid I made it too black. But you know, all my fears have been torn apart.”
Her untitled second effort is set in the same neighborhood as The Hate U Give but does not deal with the same issues. “It’s about a 16-year-old girl who is trying to find her own voice,” says Thomas, whose website bio outs her as “a former teen rapper.”
Despite the fact that she is no longer working for the bishop, she finds she has less time to write in the wake of her success. “There’s been a lot of travel,” she says. “I’m writing on my phone a lot. I have to fight to find the time.”
It’s a good problem to have. Thomas was on the telephone with Sherman one day last month, going over notes for book two, when both of them started receiving a flood of tweets—congratulating Thomas for having won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction.
“I was amazed,” she says. “But we both laughed because, again, Twitter. Everything about this book begins and ends on Twitter.”