I’ll start by saying that the subject matter in this book is something that needs to be told. It is very relevant and important, and it is amazing that a story about these very real and very serious issues has been a bestseller for so long. It means that people are reading and discussing these issues, and that’s a good thing. But this is still a fictional story, and as such, I am going to judge it like I am reading a fictional story. Any problems I have with this book do not reflect how I feel on society or the very real situations it is a reflection of. I feel that those subjects are very nuanced and complicated, and not something I will expect one young adult fiction book to cover in-depth.
Starr Carter is at a party in her neighborhood. It’s not a great neighborhood where crime is concerned. She doesn’t feel like she fits in with anyone at the party because she goes to the private school 45 minutes away where the student body is nearly all white. She’s black, along with everyone in Garden Heights. She runs into an old friend, Khalil, and they leave the party together. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over and winds up shot by a white police officer. Starr not only has to grieve an old friend, but she has to deal with being the sole witness to his murder. She also has to navigate life through her predominantly white school who know nothing or little of her life back home. Now her two worlds collide, and Starr must juggle changing friendships, a white boyfriend, gang activity, family drama, and justice for her friend.
Overall, the plot was a bit muddled. Now, that may partly be because I expected a book about an unjustified police shooting and it’s aftermath. And we did get that, to an extent. But in some ways, I felt like that plotline was the background to Starr’s issue of feeling like she is living two lives: Garden Heights Black Starr and Suburban Prep School Not-Too-Black Starr. And that plotline is a great one too. Starr feels pressure to “not act too black” when at school, but she also hides her boyfriend and friends to her family at home. Even the drug lord drama in her neighborhood is compelling, especially when you consider the role it plays in the shooting and rioting. Her family drama involved a lot, including the choice to stay and fix the community or protect their own and move away. She also has a half-brother in an abusive home. These are all great storylines, and within this story, each of them had moments where they shined. But when you throw it all together, it gets to be too much, and you aren’t sure where to put your focus. It also means you don’t know where to invest all your emotion because you never stay too long in one. I applaud Thomas for wanting to point out the many issues surrounding these types of communities. But, this book is already considered long for a YA contemporary, and it still felt like it wasn’t enough time to devote to everything.
The ending was a little all over the place as well, and some of the issues that needed to be wrapped up were tied up almost a little too neatly. For a realistic fiction book, these moments felt fantastical. And maybe that is something the author was aiming for. She wanted to show what could be. But in the grand scheme of the story, it didn’t fit. The ending was also a little frenetic. Things kept happening, one after the other, to another level beyond believability. As I said, this would have been a much more compelling finish if the storylines had been pared down to keep the focus on just two or three aspects.
Starr represents an interesting conundrum. She feels the need to make herself fit a certain mold of what she thinks white people want to see. She holds back on the slang and filters some of the subjects she speaks on. Yet she also seems to filter herself in her neighborhood. She’s a teenager who once was obsessed with the Jonas Brothers, loves Harry Potter, matches her Jordans with her backpack, and whose favorite show is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But none of it feels authentic. These basic facts are repeated incessantly. All of her interactions, whether at school or in her neighborhood feel like she is wearing a mask. I had a hard time figuring out just who she was or who she was meant to be in this story. But maybe that was intentional. Maybe we are meant to see a young girl who doesn’t even know herself. That’s a powerful thought and an ambitious goal, and I loved her discovering her voice.
If Starr was a relatable protagonist, the other black characters felt like caricatures. We have the reformed inmate/drug dealer, the drug lord and his abused family, the drug dealer looking to reform, and the old people who own the businesses in the neighborhood. There are more than these characters, but none of them felt fleshed out enough, and I blame the bloated plot for that. Each had moments of depth, but none of it went above and beyond making me feel like these were real people.
The white people were beyond stereotypical. Some reviewers have claimed this was intentional on the part of the author. They say it is because this is what is typically done to people of color in other books: they are relegated to second class and wrapped in cliches and stereotypes. First, let me say that I can see where they are coming from. But whether that was intentional or not, I did not enjoy it. To me, it seems like something that would be the opposite of what you should do to bring light to the fact that people of color are given unfair treatment in other popular novels. Rather than just letting your POC shine, you pull people away and force them to look at something else entirely.
There are two main white characters: Hailey, the friend, and Chris, the boyfriend. Hailey and Starr bonded over grief at a younger age but have now drifted apart. When things finally go down, it comes out that Hailey, is in fact, a little racist. At first, she made a joke that she didn’t think was racist. Then she said something that she didn’t feel was racist. Both people told her it offended them. She doubled down, then turned full blown racist. Chris is the stereotype for White Guilt. He even at one point, apologizes for all white people. His character was boring, though he was clearly the type of supportive character that Starr needed to grow.
The most disappointing thing about these characters is the fact that there is little middle ground. There is no discourse about any of the events. Everything is set to be very one side versus the other. Black and white as you might say. It was a real missed opportunity here.
The writing is fresh and fun. I liked the use of slang and colloquialisms. It made the book very easy to read and get into. You could feel like you were living right along with this family. But ingrained within the story were some very repetitive pop culture references that began to feel jarring, pulling me out of the story. All of Starr’s interests were rehashed over and over, including several mentions of which shoes she was wearing and full quotes of the Fresh Prince theme song. There was also a three or four-page description (on my Kindle) of the conversation about the basketball game. Now, I am aware that this scene was meant to set the stage: they are having a very casual and loving family night before they are interrupted by a violent event. However, this, in combination with other repetitive scenes, only made me feel further detached.
The tragic event of Khalil’s shooting happened so early, some readers may feel there wasn’t enough time to care for the person shot. I think this was at least somewhat intentional. It was another young black man whom people knew little about. We are led to believe he might have been a drug dealer. We are asked to think about whether that should matter, which I think is a very powerful story element. Of course, as the story goes on, we learn that this boy was doing bad things for good reasons. I was disappointed that these facts were told through another party and not shown through his actions before death. I also kind of wish they kept it ambiguous rather than making him out to be this angel-like figure. It shouldn’t matter that this boy could have been a drug dealer. It should have focused on the fact that he was an unarmed boy, shot and killed because a police officer got scared. That is something I’d love to see talked about: how these large men with guns are quick to pull the trigger, immediately shooting to kill.
A hairbrush is not a gun.
There is some very powerful imagery here, and it speaks volumes. The protest scenes are wonderfully done. It shows both sides of the anger: the rage and the despair. We see the violent-for-the-sake-of-violence protests. We see the more subdued protest with a powerful voice behind a megaphone. It is unfortunate that both of these scenes turned into ones of violence, and I wish she would have stuck with the two opposing images.
The pacing is off. Too much happens too fast in the final chapters of this book. The beginning, with Khalil’s death, was very sudden. And the middle is left with lots of exposition just sitting around waiting. I could forgive the latter two, but the ending really felt like a completely different book.
For me, it felt too black and white, literally and figuratively. It was about a white cop, so all white people are bad. It wasn’t about police brutality, it was about race. And while that plays a part in the actions we see in society, it is not what the whole problem is. One of the men who was killed in real life (and mentioned in the pages of this book) was killed by a Latino officer. Similarly to how I felt about encompassing different character viewpoints rather than such jarring stereotypes, it would have been more interesting to also have a look at the systematic oppression of police in general.
Many people have touted this book as one that you must read before you die. It has won numerous awards in the two years since it’s release. It has been number one on the New York Times Bestseller List for Young Adult Fiction for eighty weeks. The reviews on both Goodreads (4.56) and Amazon (4.8) are nothing short of glowing. However, this book does have its dissenters. In my research for this post, I couldn’t help but sense a pattern to the reviews.
- Reviewer rated the book 4 or 5 stars because of the subject matter
- Reviewer rated the book 3 stars because the subject matter was relevant but the writing or plot was mediocre
- Reviewer rated the book 1 or 2 stars because of poor writing and stereotyping
What I found most interesting (and a little disheartening) were the comments on the 1 or 2 star (sometimes 3 star) reviews. If you rated this book poorly, you “didn’t get the message,” or “you don’t get to be offended, because you’re white, and racism against whites doesn’t exist.”
Now, I want to unpack that a little. First, why do we feel the need to critique someone’s feelings or reaction to a book? They didn’t like a book you loved or thought was important. They had their reasons behind it. Why do you feel the need to attack or berate them? I enjoy seeing a healthy discourse about it, but in the days of social media, people jump right to attack mode. If you feel they didn’t get the message, try explaining what you got out of the book to see if you can sway them. Don’t try to tell them what the author intended, because you know what, that was the author’s job, and they do that with their writing. Everyone has different tastes and preferences which is why there are so many genres and stories out there. Everyone won’t like the same things. And that’s perfectly okay.
Secondly, it should be no one’s place to tell another person they aren’t allowed to be offended. In the case of this book, some people did not like the stereotypes assigned to some characters. They did not like that some characters were allowed to say stereotypical or offensive things to another character, but not vice versa because of their skin color. This meant that it was okay for the black characters to mock white culture, but not the other way around. When some reviewers pointed this out, there were lots of comments involving “you can’t be racist against whites,” “there is no such thing as reverse racism,” and even “well white people do suck.”
I have to agree on one point. There is no such thing as reverse racism. Here is the definition of racism by Miriam-Webster:
a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
Reading that definition, nowhere does it say that racism is only for a minority race. It says that it is the belief that when it comes to other races, it is the color of their skin alone that determines who they are and what they can do. It says that it is the belief that because of this, your skin color is better. Historically, this is done by the race in power, most typically white people, so I can see where this idea of racism only applying to minorities can be misconstrued.
I am not saying that white people have it bad or that white privilege doesn’t exist in some cases. I am not saying that minorities don’t experience racism to a greater extent, because they do. Racism against these races has been going on for much longer and goes much deeper and has many more far-reaching implications than it does for anyone else. That is a serious issue that has so many nuances and complications in how we could fix it than this one little book could even come close to.
What I am saying is that while you may not call it racism to make fun of a white person because of the color of their skin, by definition, it is. If you define that person by the fact that they are white, by definition, that is racist behavior. You may not think it is as bad as being racist to a black person, but it is still, by definition, racism. And to get mad that someone feels offended by those words or actions only makes it worse.
In fact, there is a very relevant section in the book that speaks to this. Starr had been laughing and joking with her Asian friend, Maya, about her food baby brought on by eating too much fried chicken in the cafeteria. They then begin playing a basketball game against the boys with their friend Hailey, a white girl. When Starr appears to be flirting with her boyfriend that allows him to score, Hailey makes a joke (in her mind) about how if Starr hadn’t gorged herself on fried chicken, maybe she’d be able to run faster (not word for word, but along those lines). Immediately, Starr gets upset and leaves the court. Even when told, Hailey seemed oblivious to the fact that Starr felt that what she had said was racist. Hailey argues that Starr and Maya had just been joking about it, and she didn’t mean it in any racist way. Starr tells her that she won’t apologize for feeling offended by the comment.
And that’s kind of the point, right? Regardless of how we perceive this conversation, whether you side with Hailey and think it’s not fair that she can’t be included in a conversation simply because she’s white, or with Starr that she feels this way because of stereotyping of black people, it shouldn’t matter. Starr informed Hailey that she felt offended. At that moment, Hailey made a comment that hurts someone else’s feelings because they felt it was a comment in regards to the color of their skin. Anyone can have this feeling, and while you may not understand it, it’s not okay to further attack that person. So when a white reader is offended that Starr later goes on to make fun of white people for liking green bean casserole or one of the many other conversations regarding things white people do or say, it is within their right to feel that way.
I’m sure if there are people that actually read this review (oh, who am I kidding, even just people who see it), I will catch some flack. Yes, the story idea is poignant and enthralling. The themes are important and need to be written about. But the way the story was told is not good enough for me. If this book had focused on the shooting and Starr’s reaction plus the fallout, it could have been amazing. But the writing style and addition of so many plot points took away from that powerful message. It gets lost in all the pop culture references and blatant stereotyping. So, yes, this book deserves to be praised for tackling the subject matter. Many of those aspects are wonderfully told, and you really should read about them. This book is important in many ways, and for that reason alone you should read it. However, I don’t think this book is the best at covering the main topic it set out to cover. I didn’t love this book, but it was still a worthy read.
3 out of 5
Author: Angie Thomas
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Format Read: Kindle
Category(s): Contemporary, Young Adult, Fiction
Pages: 444 (Hardcover)