[Marxism] New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 20 09:09:25 MDT 2017

NY Times, Mar. 20 2017
New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality

Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” 
in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. 
But to her it felt deeply personal.

Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit 
police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old 
African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. 
She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably 
deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who 
is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.

That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young 
black men continued.

Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about 
such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a 
frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 
2000 optioned the film rights.

When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant 
critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The 
novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address 
police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The 
New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic 
praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult 
novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called 
the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be 
remembered as a classic of our time.”

“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the 
rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that 
confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter 
movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers 
who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their 
stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial 
injustice for young readers.

“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what 
we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college 
student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was 
Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles 
said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager 
whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his 
depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.

This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut 
novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at 
an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an 
off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at 
a traffic light.

In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost 
of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses 
the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, 
including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 
1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will 
release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old 
Tamir Rice.

Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of 
children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds 
of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other 
recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, 
including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high 
school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.

Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging 
with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.

“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” 
said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy 
away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”

The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s 
book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the 
stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by 
African-American authors.

While the number of children’s books featuring African-American 
characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black 
authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the 
Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of 
Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s 
books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 
2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly 
the same number as a decade ago.

The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has 
been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 
“Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and 
Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors 
have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.

“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the 
novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All 
American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is 
assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.

Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more 
than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students 
about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered 
resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a 
school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were 
canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds 

The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned 
Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church 
receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while 
the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.

“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not 
here to give you comfort.’”

As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas 
didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter 
books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose 
lives felt familiar to her were scarce.

“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she 
said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in 
a book.”

In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing 
class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. 
One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over 
the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and 
grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the 
parking lot, she cried.

But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her 
writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my 
community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about 
Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could 
turn it into a novel.

“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community 
Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable 
but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s 
traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two 
worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished 

One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled 
over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the 
risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.

“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can 
understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.

Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the 
country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an 
event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they 
had never met an author who looked like them.

On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers 
from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore 
a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” 
and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.

The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book 
editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, 
and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a 

One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so 
many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled 
on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a 
contentious topic.

“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. 
“Writing is a form of activism.”

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