It’s a rags-to-literary-riches true story of somebody being in the right place at the right time. Last June, aspiring author Angela Thomas asked literary agent Brooks Sherman via Twitter if he considered a YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement acceptable to publishers. Two weeks ago, Thomas received her answer: after a heated auction among 13 publishing houses, including all of the Big Five, Donna Bray of HarperCollins’ Balzer + Bray imprint acquired Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give. While Bray declined to disclose the financials of the deal, per house policy, knowledgeable sources told PW it was a six-figure deal.
Not only did Bray triumph in what she described as a lively auction, but she said she had earlier tried to preempt it – not once, but twice. Sherman, who works for the Bent Literary Agency in New York City, disclosed that Bray had contacted him the day he sent out a pitch to publishers for The Hate U Give. “She made it clear early on that she was interested in what Angela had to say,” Sherman said.
“I was struck from the very first pages,” Bray told PW. “What an accomplished debut. [Thomas] painted a picture of this girl, this family, and this community in such an authentic way that I rarely see in YA literature.”
Describing Thomas as “an incredible talent,” Bray said that she considers The Hate U Give “a really important book for me to publish,” and expects that, with the perfect storm of it being topical, well-written, with an important message, this novel “could be really big” in the marketplace.
“I knew it was timely, but it’s such a sensitive topic,” Thomas told PW during a telephone interview, explaining why she’d reached out to Sherman in such an unorthodox way, “I was too scared to even send out queries.”
The Hate U Give tells the story of 16-year-old Starr, who navigates between the poverty-stricken slum she has grown up in and the upper-crust suburban prep school she attends. Her life is up-ended when she is an eyewitness to a police officer shooting her best friend, Khalil, who turns out to have been unarmed during the confrontation – but may or may not have been a drug dealer. As Starr finds herself even more torn between the two vastly different worlds she inhabits, she also has to contend with speaking her truth and, in the process, trying to stay alive herself.
“I’d been looking for a story with this [Black Lives Matter-inspired story line] for a while,” Sherman said, “But I didn’t want the message to drive the story. I wanted characters to drive the story.”
The Hate U Give “is not a biographical novel, but [Thomas] was writing from personal experience,” he noted. “She wanted to write about neighborhoods like hers and the kids in neighborhoods like hers.” Thomas said she was inspired to write the story five years ago, “before Trayvon Martin and after Oscar Grant,” naming two young African-American men who were killed (Martin in Sanford, Florida in 2012 and Grant in Oakland, Calif., in 2009). Thomas remembers friends of hers refusing one evening to drive across a bridge separating two neighborhoods in her hometown of Jackson, Miss., “because they feared going into the ’hood. And I said, ‘But that’s where I live.’ ” She wants readers to understand, she said, that there’s much more to impoverished urban neighborhoods than what people see from the outside, and that “there’s some good here.”
Thomas, a student in Belhaven University’s creative writing program at the time she conceptualized The Hate U Give, originally wrote it as a short story for her senior-year project in 2011, but it quickly expanded into a novel-length work. The title comes from the definition of a tattoo sported by the late hip-hop musician Tupac Shakur, the acronym T.H.U.G. Both Sherman and Thomas noted that Shakur’s definition of “Thug Life” encapsulates Thomas’ message in her writing. “What society feeds into youth comes back later and kicks society in the butt,” Thomas explained, describing Shakur’s music as having had a profound influence on her. “These kids who are being blamed for their own deaths are still kids.”
Shortly after Thomas signed on with the Bent Agency, she was awarded with a $2,000 grant, one of the five inaugural We Need Diverse Books Walter Grants given out in 2015 to emerging writers and illustrators. The grant provided yet more validation for her as a writer, Thomas said, affirming for her that she was “on the right track with this.” Just as important, she added, the grant served a more practical purpose: she used the funds to replace her six-year-old computer with a new model so that she could continue to write unimpeded by technical glitches. “The screen needed tape, some of the keys had stopped working,” she said with a laugh.
Thomas isn’t the only person who feels validated by the outpouring of attention already being paid to The Hate U Give by publishers, including international rights being sold in Turkey and optioned in the U.K., Germany, and France; the French auction closed on Wednesday morning. “It was a personal triumph for me,” Sherman said, that a debut novel by an unknown writer would receive such a reception in the industry.
“There’s a very real hunger for these kinds of stories, a lot of clamoring [by book industry people] for this kind of deal,” he added, noting that, even that although The Hate U Give is a “very American story,” its universal appeal is “evidence of [Thomas’s] storytelling skills.”
It’s a sentiment that’s shared by Bray, who disclosed that she’d never before competed in an auction with a dozen other publishers. “I wasn’t alone in my feelings for [The Hate U Give],” she said. “Other houses felt that it was a special book. I’m really happy to have gotten it [and] to launch the career of someone so smart and who is such a good writer.”
Correction: Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla., in 2012 by George Zimmerman. Michael Brown was killed by police in a St. Louis suburb in 2014. This story has been updated.