Author Angie Thomas burst onto the YA scene last year with her debut novel, The Hate U Give, (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), an #ownvoices story inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. An instant bestseller, the book earned Thomas several starred reviews and selection as a PW Flying Start. To date, the novel has sold 850,000 copies in all formats.
During her closing keynote on June 21 at Children’s Institute in New Orleans, Thomas reflected on her path to becoming a writer and her experiences facing discrimination as a woman of color. Addressing the booksellers in the audience, she said, “I’m here to tell you it is possible to change the world. And it really is in your power as children’s booksellers. We don’t just need diverse books. We need gatekeepers like yourself to get books in kids’ hands.”
Thomas grew up in Jackson, Miss., a place she said is “known for its amazing writers—and for racism.” She warned, however, against generalizations and misconceptions. “There’s a lot of good in my neighborhood, but there’s bad, too,” she said. Thomas recalled two pivotal encounters during her childhood, both with white teachers. “Both of them recognized my blackness,” she said. “But both planted different seeds.”
Thomas’s first grade teacher, whom she referred to during her talk using the alias “Mrs. First,” was notorious for her tough treatment of students. As a six-year-old, Thomas often stayed after school while her mother, a substitute teacher, finished up with work. On one occasion, Thomas overheard a particularly upsetting conversation between “Mrs. First” and a fellow teacher: “I don’t know why I waste my time teaching these little black kids who’ll probably end up in the streets anyway,” Mrs. First said.
Thomas contrasted this striking instance of prejudice with the encouragement and compassion shown to her by another teacher. Two years later, as a third grader, Thomas was writing an original story during class one day, when her teacher, “Mrs. Third,” approached her. Thomas was worried she’d be reprimanded for not paying attention during class, but instead her teacher urged her to read the story aloud. Thomas remembered her classmates’ applause when she finished reading, and her teacher’s insistence that she share her work with them every Friday. “It ignited the spark that led me here,” Thomas said.
Thomas concluded her speech by encouraging booksellers to “shine a light on books by marginalized authors. We must provide kids with books that are as diverse as they are.” She offered a final note about the power of literature to shape future leaders: “The books you sell today may go to a kid who could one day be a president with a Twitter account.”
Thomas’s speech drew passionate responses from booksellers. Angie Tally of the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C., said, “Angie commanded the room from the first moment on stage to the standing ovation booksellers gave at the conclusion. As booksellers, we cannot change the circumstances of our customers, of children in the schools we serve or the neighborhoods bordering our stores; but we can, and we have the responsibility to, put books on our shelves and in the hands of children and adults that can open portals to the bigger world of experience and opportunity.”
Jen Kraar of City of Asylum Bookstore in Pittsburgh, said, “I was so moved by Angie Thomas’s remarks! Her stories, forceful with blunt wit and passion, gave us booksellers a major challenge—to recognize racial imbalance and ‘take it down.’ An uplifting, energizing close to a memorable Children’s Institute.”
During a Q&A, Thomas shared her excitement for the just-released trailer of the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hate U Give. The movie, which stars Amandla Stenberg, premieres in theaters on October 19. Thomas’s highly anticipated second book, On the Come Up, which is due from Balzer + Bray next February, will pay tribute to one of her favorite art forms: hip-hop.
When asked by a member of the audience if Mrs. Third knows of her success, Thomas replied that her former teacher reached out via Facebook to congratulate her. While visiting Lemuria Books in Jackson, her teacher had recognized her author photo on a copy of The Hate U Give and, according to Thomas, “she bought out the stock.”