I am in awe of Angie Thomas’s accomplishment with this book. It has a moral without being moralistic and a message that creeps into your consciousness through believable, likable, and courageous characters, a complex and compelling storyline, and a city you can almost hear and smell, even though we have no idea where it actually is.
This is a book about the importance of speaking out, despite the very real risks it presents. It’s also about community, with interconnected themes of belonging and loyalty woven with race, police brutality, and black identity.
That’s a lot to pack in, but Thomas does it so elegantly the reader falls in love with these amazing people facing a decision: Can they go on as usual or is it time to challenge the power structure? In this case, that structure includes the police department and district attorney on the one hand and a drug lord and his minions on the other. Caught between these two, which do you align with? What happens when the answer is “neither”?
At the center of the story is Starr, a smart and perceptive Black teenager who sees her childhood friend Khalil killed by a police officer after a traffic stop for a bad brake light. She struggles with her responsibility to Khalil, her community, family, and ultimately to herself. She’s terrified of telling the truth, which implicates both the officer and the drug kings, but she finally realizes she has no choice.
Starr straddles two different communities with different cultures and language. In the neighborhood, she is the grocer’s daughter, who sometimes works in his store. At her school in a ritzy white neighborhood, she is only as cool as she needs to be. She’s in that school because her parents know she will not get the education and opportunities she needs and deserves if she stays in the local school. She’s not a total fit in either place.
She has to leave parts of her behind when she goes to school—her language, her stories, and certainly the fact that she was in the car when Khalil was killed. If the white kids know too much, she fears, they’ll see her as a ghetto kid and dismiss her. Eventually, loyalty to her community and trust from her white friends help her speak out.
Thomas began this book when she was an undergraduate in creative writing at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. She says she chose to write it as a young adult novel to make it more accessible and relatable—and she succeeded.
The book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the title comes from rapper Tupac Shakir’s THUG LIFE philosophy (and tatoo), an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody. Shakir says, “What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face.” When you force kids to live in a community that offers few opportunities besides drug dealing, you allow children to grow up broken and angry. But those are our kids, even if they don’t look or act like us—or we like them—and their world is connected to ours. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Ideally, we would be motivated to help black children get the same benefits as white because that is simply part of a just society. But THUG LIFE reminds us that, no matter our motivation, our inaction will come back to hurt us all.