Image: © Mark Makela for The New York Times

Image: © Mark Makela, New York Times

Early in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (Walker Books), the protagonist, Starr, recalls being sat down at age 12 by her parents for two serious ‘talks’. ‘One was the usual birds and the bees,’ she says. ‘The other talk was what to do if a cop stopped me.’ She remembers her normally jovial father telling her seriously: ‘Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.’

The merging of these two incongruent pieces of adult wisdom into a mundane rite of teenagehood is characteristic of the subtle way Thomas depicts the intrinsic tension at the heart of Starr’s life. It’s a telling moment, not least because it comes just as Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, are pulled over by the police for a minor traffic violation. ‘I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil,’ Starr thinks, right before the seemingly impossible happens: Khalil is shot dead by the police officer.

What follows is a powerful account of a community reacting to Khalil’s death, both in grief and in anger. Thomas has stated that The Hate U Give (THUG) was partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the connections between Khalil’s death and the murders of Michael Brown (aged 18), Trayvon Martin (aged 17) and Tamir Rice (aged 12) are clear. The novel has been widely lauded for its nuanced portrayals of race, privilege and violence in modern day America. Just as important, however, is the fact that Thomas filters these incredibly complex themes through the eyes of a 16-year-old black girl.

This is the best book I have read this year. I say that without qualification. Henry James, in The Art of Fiction, writes: ‘there are bad novels and good novels…that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning.’ This is a very good novel. Of all of the books I have read lately, this is the one that I most want to press into the hands of everyone I meet. And yet while reviews of THUG have been almost uniformly positive, much of the coverage has emphasised the novel’s YA classification in a way that seems intended to detract from its power.

Of all of the books I have read lately, [The Hate U Give] is the one that I most want to press into the hands of everyone I meet.

There is a hint of the old, tired snobbery towards YA, for example, in a New York Times review of THUG, which outlines the novel’s pedagogic value at the expense of acknowledging any artistic worth, noting blandly that ‘some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers’. Similar sentiments are found in a review in the Atlantic, which includes the line: ‘The Hate U Give has many of the markers of a typical young-adult novel, too: At times, Starr feels judged and out of place in school, she’s navigating a friendship with a “mean girl,” and is a year into her first real romantic relationship.’ It notes that the novel ‘allows some readers to see the complexity of their lives mirrored in literature; for others … it can help generate deeper understanding’ – as if this effect is limited to literature for younger readers, who may have more to ‘learn’.

By emphasising THUG’s didactic qualities, by dwelling on its ‘value’ for young readers, we diminish the novel’s ambition. This is not to deny that THUG is a YA novel – rather, it is to question why a YA classification might make the novel lesser, might threaten its simultaneous classification as capital-L Literature.

I won’t rehash old arguments, but suffice to say there is a long and storied history of critics deriding young adult fiction as lacking literary merit, with many dismissing the genre as merely synonymous with ‘books for children’. This attitude is exemplified by critics like Christopher Beha, writing in the New Yorker, who suggests that the YA label is applied ‘to make a real literary distinction’ which involves simplifying ‘first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life.’

By emphasising THUG’s didactic qualities, by dwelling on its ‘value’ for young readers, we diminish the novel’s ambition.

In this and so many other things, Beha severely underestimates the reading comprehension, artistic sensibilities and lived experiences of young adults. The Australian Curriculum doesn’t make this mistake: the VCE text list currently includes novels by Aravind Adiga, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Joan London. At high school I read Tolstoy, Conrad and Austen – hardly evidence of the need to simplify language for young readers.

It seems unlikely that this condescension towards YA stems solely from a disdain for youth. After all, the novel (particularly the American novel) has a long-held fascination with young protagonists: from Dickens’ Pip, to Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, through to DBC Pierre’s Vernon Little and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Oskar Schell. The most striking thing about these characters is not their age but their gender: they are all male. Meanwhile, many popular YA novels feature young women as protagonists (and are written by female authors). Could it be that much of the criticism levelled at YA has less to do with its simplified syntax or youthful characters, but rather is yet more evidence of the cultural devaluation of women’s (particularly young women’s) experiences?

Suspicions that the literary establishment’s dismissive attitude towards YA might be less to do with ‘books for kids’ than ‘books for girls’ seem to converge in the example of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – which many critics have suggested resembles YA in its narrative scope (the young male protagonist goes on a somewhat fantastical journey of self-discovery).

A close linguistic analysis by James Wood in the New Yorker found that The Goldfinch employs much of the simplification that Beha considers characteristic of YA: ‘Its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature’, says Wood. Despite this, the novel was awarded one of the most prestigious prizes for literary merit on offer. We can only wonder what the reaction of the Pulitzer committee would have been had the protagonist been named Theodora rather than Theodore – though our speculations might be illuminated by the knowledge that for at least the past seventeen years, the Pulitzer has never been awarded to a book written wholly from a female character’s point of view.

It has also, of course, never been awarded to a work of young adult fiction.

But why of course? What is it about YA that sits so obviously outside of what is considered ‘literary’? The question of what makes a book YA is a fraught one, but most definitions involve a hazy Venn diagram of the protagonist’s age, the novel’s ‘voice’ and the intended readership. The concept of readership is particularly thorny, because it is well-documented that a large proportion of YA readers are actually adults. Thomas, speaking about THUG, seems not only to acknowledge this adult audience but to welcome it. In an interview with MTV, Thomas said:

I always knew Starr would be 16, and I wanted [THUG] to be a YA novel because in so many of these cases we’re looking at young adults losing their lives. I also knew that with a story and subject like this, I might have a better chance of reaching an adult’s heart by using a 16-year-old, because Starr still had her innocence.

There’s no sense, here, that Thomas believes that by writing Starr’s story as YA she may have accidentally limited its readership.

If we set aside THUG’s intended audience, we are left with the two other parts of the equation: the protagonist’s age, and the novel’s ‘voice’. THUG is written entirely in the first person, its perspective unmistakably that of a 16-year-old black girl. Starr’s voice leaps off the page from the very first sentence. When she arrives at a party, she notes her discomfort by observing that ‘girls wear their hair coloured, curled, laid and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail.’ Starr also exhibits an extensive ability to code switch depending on her situation. At her ‘bougie’ private school she becomes ‘Williamson Starr’:

If a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her ‘hood’.

Thomas has called THUG an ‘unapologetic black girl book’, telling MTV that she wrote the novel ‘for all the black girls out there who want to see themselves in books.’ And it is Thomas’ ability to vividly portray the lived experiences of black teenage girls that makes the novel such compelling reading. But this superpower might also be her kryptonite. It’s possible that THUG’s strength – its nuanced, masterful depiction of what it means to be young and black and female in America – is also the very thing that makes it inherently flawed in the eyes of the literary establishment. It shares, indeed, the flaw of many YA novels – it is both for and of young women.

Objectively, there is nothing about the life of a teenage girl that makes it inherently less literary than the life of a middle-aged man. And yet.

There is nothing about the life of a teenage girl that makes it inherently less literary than the life of a middle-aged man.

When I think about what makes YA distinctive as a category, I don’t think about vampires, or first loves, or high school, or ‘simple’ language, or any of the things that Beha and others might have you believe are hallmarks of YA fiction. Instead, I am reminded of a moment in Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay ‘On Pandering,’ where she talks about her realisation that ‘countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati’. She says:

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander.

This is what I think about when I think about YA: it doesn’t pander. It isn’t written to satisfy the tastes or desires of old white men. Books like THUG and so many other wonderful, thoughtful, artful works are unashamedly written for, and towards, young women. And this, of course, is also the heart of the problem. From pop music to fashion to literature, the cultural artefacts beloved of teenage girls have been routinely derided and undervalued by the patriarchal establishment since time immemorial. As Hazel Cills writes for Rookie:

When you applaud or critique a young girl’s taste based on how well or badly it aligns with yours, you are suggesting that your taste = THE RIGHT TASTE, because you are the one IN THE KNOW.

I cringe every time I see someone recommend a YA title with a disclaimer along the lines of I don’t read much YA, but this is actually really great! It shouldn’t be surprising that a novel about a teenage girl might have something interesting or insightful to say. For me, reading YA isn’t just about reading books about girls (though actually, books about girls are bloody wonderful). It’s also about having access to stories that reflect the lived experiences of people different to those I normally read about, free from the narrow confines of what might be considered ‘literary’.

So please, read The Hate U Give. It has something truly important to say about the world we live in, which will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Not despite the fact that it is YA, but because of it.

The Hate U Give is available now at Readings.