Best-seller puts black girls on the cover, writes Susie Mesure.

Angie Thomas might have stopped studying if it hadn't been for Hillman College, which fans of late 80s television might remember from The Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World. "That show encouraged a lot of young black kids to go to college, including me," says Thomas from within her burgundy, Hillman-emblazoned hoodie. "When I wear the flips," she whips some sunglasses from her pocket, flipping up the black circles, "it reminds people of the character Dwayne Wayne."

Now 29, Thomas is the one doing the encouraging and it's all down to a short story she wrote while studying creative writing at college in Jackson, Mississippi. That story became her first novel, The Hate U Give, about Starr, a black teenage girl living in a poor, black neighbourhood in inner-city America who sees her unarmed childhood friend, Khalil, shot dead by a police officer.

Since its US release in February, the book has topped the New York Times young adult fiction bestseller chart, selling more than 100,000 copies. Fox 2000 snapped up the film rights last year, lining up Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games, to star in the adaptation.

Writing a cast of black characters into a story that confronts police brutality, racial stereotyping and the Black Lives Matter movement is encouraging black teenagers to read and even to dream of their own future literary success, says Thomas. "Every time a black girl comes up to me and says, 'Thank you. It's the first time I've seen myself in a book like this', that's better than hitting the New York Times bestseller list."


Sipping a Diet Coke in a London hotel restaurant, Thomas tells me she accused her American publisher, HarperCollins, of "failing" her as a child, for not publishing books that reflected her life. "I saw myself in hip-hop more than I saw myself in books. Rappers told the stories I connected with; books didn't. It goes to show how important representation is, because maybe if I had seen myself in books more when I reached my teenage years, maybe I would have read more. Because after a while it was like, 'Okay, here's another white girl on the cover.'

"Publishing did something pretty terrible. They made the assumption that black kids don't read, so then there was this assumption that black books don't sell. That's a stereotype ... but now you have my book proving them wrong. You have others proving them wrong. Now they realise they made a mistake."

At her launch party, in Jackson, a group of black middle-school pupils told her how much they liked writing but "didn't realise they could be an author until they met me, because I looked like them and I was from there, just like them".

Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games. Photo / WireImage
Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games. Photo / WireImage

Thomas grew up in Jackson's predominantly black Georgetown neighbourhood; she is her mother's only daughter but has a number of half brother and sisters. "Papa was a rolling stone! That's a story for another time!"

She remembers one day at the park, aged 6, fleeing the crossfire between two drug dealers. Later, she says, losing herself in Harry Potter books helped her ignore the gunshots she heard outside. "I was hearing gunshots but I wasn't hearing them, because I was so caught up in whether Harry was going to get into the Chamber of Secrets."

It took her professor at Jackson's Belhaven University, where she was the first black teenager to graduate from her creative writing course, to make Thomas realise her stories were worth telling. "There is that phrase, 'Write what you know'. I didn't think anyone cared about what I knew. My professor said, 'There are voices in your neighbourhood and your community that have been silenced and need to be heard and you can do that with your stories.'"

When 22-year-old, unarmed Oscar Grant was shot dead in the back by police in California in 2009, Thomas was still at college. "At home, he was one of us, we knew Oscars. But at my school, people tried to use the fact that he had a record and was an ex-con to justify it.

"It felt personal and the only thing I knew how to do instead of burning every garbage can on campus, was I wrote."


The subsequent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice - deaths that triggered scores of Black Lives Matter protests - kept Thomas writing. The result is an extraordinarily powerful book that has connected far beyond the young black readership Thomas had in mind. At a recent teen book festival in Texas, "girls, boys, black kids, white kids, Latino kids, Asians, older white women, older black women, and older white men" all queued for her book signing.

" ... Empathy has a way of going over divides. Starr is giving people a window into what it is like to be a young black girl in America. If you see it through her eyes, you have no choice but to put yourself in her shoes for those 400 and something pages and then you can go forward and when you see another young black girl who may remind you of Starr, for a second, instead of stereotyping her, maybe you'll think about Starr and it will probably give you a different view of her."

In The Hate U Give, which was named after a song by rapper Tupac Shakur, Starr has a "strong two-parent household because there is this assumption that black kids, especially poor black kids, don't have two-parent households and that's a lie".

Next up she wants to "tear down the stereotype of poverty" in what will be the second of her two-book deal, which she has already started writing. "Just because someone is poor or even receiving government assistance does not make them any less human and I want to show that."


The Hate U Give

(Walker Books, $20