This week the National Book Awards longlist came out, and one of the books listed was “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. Published in February 2017, “The Hate U Give” has skyrocketed to the top of reading lists for young adults across the country, as well as scooping up some very prestigious awards. In addition to having a record 13 publishing houses bid for the publishing rights (Harper Collins’ Balzer+Bray won), the book has been optioned as a movie (filming began last week), and has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for months.
Hearing Angie Thomas speak at the Library of Congress National Book Festival was thrilling. Immediately I noticed that the audience for her presentation was the most diverse of all the speakers I listened to that day. Readers as young as ten were lined up waiting to enter the room, as well as senior teachers and librarians. The attendees were black, white, and all shades in between, and as Ms. Thomas spoke about what moved her to write her book, I could hear fingers snapping, “Amens”, light applause, and “Preach, Sister” in response to her words.
Ms. Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and witnessed a drug deal shoot out when she was six years old. The next day her mother took her to the public library, showing her another side of her community. When she was in college, she listened to news reports about the shooting of an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by the police, Oscar Grant. From that incident, the idea for “The Hate U Give” was born. After turning in the short story for a creative writing class at university, she was encouraged to continue the story as a novel. While working as a secretary for a bishop, she wrote the book in her spare time. Although it was initially rejected by more than 60 publishers, she was able to get the book published with the help of We Need Diverse Books, winning their inaugural award.
“The Hate U Give” is not the only book about police brutality, shootings, and speaking up for the truth to come out in recent years. Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s “All American Boys” was published in late 2015, and went on to win major awards in 2016. The authors spoke at schools, communities, and book festivals, and won both the Coretta Scott King Author book award and the Walter Dean Myers Award. “All American Boys” is told by two alternating narrators; Rashad, a black boy who has been beaten by a policeman who mistakenly thought he was shoplifting, and Quinn, a white boy from school who witnesses the assault and is a family friend of the police officer.
A year earlier, Kekla Magoon’s “How it Went Down” tackled a similar subject. It was published in 2014, and features the shooting of a black teen by a white man living in the same neighborhood. The book is told from the points of view of several people who saw the event, heard about the event, or knew the shooter or the victim. Each chapter offers a different take on “what went down”, as the neighborhood navigates the after-effects from the residents, the police, and the media.
When I heard Angie Thomas speak at the National Book Festival, a teacher in the audience asked her, “How can I explain to my very young students- first graders- about topics such as police brutality, Black Lives Matter, neighborhood riots, and violence against unarmed citizens?”. Ms. Thomas told her, “You teach them that empathy is more important than sympathy”. That got me thinking about children’s books that address this timely topic. Here’s a few that are new or upcoming for our very young readers:
“Momma, Did You Hear the News”, by Sanya Whittaker Gragg, is a picture book that features a young boy whose parents decide he’s old enough to have “The Talk” with him after he sees the news about a police shooting. His parents teach him to come back “A-L-I-V-E”, with each letter featuring advice on how to behave if he encounters the police. The book was published in April 2017.
“The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist”, published in January 2017, by author Cynthia Levinson (award-winning author of “We’ve Got a Job”, about the Birmingham Children’s March). “The Youngest Marcher” picture book tells the story of the youngest person to be arrested at a civil rights protest- she was nine years old.
And debuting next month (October 2017), a picture book entitled “Lovely” by Jess Hong, features people who are “big, small, curly, straight, loud, quiet….” and helps young readers gain an appreciation for all the things that make us different from one another… and the same.
As parents, teachers, and librarians, we can, as Angie Thomas challenged, instill empathy in our youngest readers, and they in turn will grow up to be the kind of teens and then adults who will appreciate the differences among us and not turn a blind eye when discrimination and oppression happen to people who “look different” to them. They will fight for the freedoms of all people, regardless of the way they look, where they live, or where they come from. Just as “Dystopia” was hot in young adult books a few years ago, it appears that “Diversity” is a trend that is here to stay for a while.
**This post was featured on September 20 on the Freedom to Read Foundation blog.