Everyone in the world who cares about YA books knows that Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, is one of the biggest and most important releases of 2017. It follows the story of Starr Carter, who witnesses her unarmed best friend being shot by a police officer, and tackles themes of family, race, friendship, community, and – of course – the topic of police brutality, which is still at the forefront of many people’s minds worldwide. Patrice Lawrence’s debut novel Orangeboy was released in 2016, and is similarly brilliantly written, with an idiosyncratic voice and a compelling plot. It follows Marlon, a 16 year old boy from London who finds himself hunted by the mysterious Mr Orange after tragedy befalls him when he’s out on a date. I have a bundle containing a signed copy of each book to give away – follow me on Twitter (@nopelucy) for more details about that later in the week.
I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with Angie and Patrice at Waterstones Piccadilly, and I have to say that it was one of the best book events I’ve ever been to. The audiences of a lot of the author Q&As I’ve attended have been predominantly one thing: white. But the audience at this event was a lot more diverse than that, which was great to see. As Thomas went on to emphasise over the course of the evening, publishing has a big problem with diversity. The voices (see the tag ‘own voices’ on twitter) of writers of colour simply aren’t being heard as much as they deserve to be, which means that a lot of people don’t find themselves and their lives to be represented in the books that are available to them in book shops. As someone who works at Waterstones, I have cringed many times when recommending books for kids who aren’t white – there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right about recommending books in which they aren’t represented, and let’s face it: there are only so many times that you can mention the absolutely incredible Malorie Blackman.
Anyway, here’s a picture of Angie and Patrice being interviewed by Darren Chetty. Please excuse the terrible quality, obvs I’m short and trembly-handed.
It was a great and incredibly thought provoking interview. Here are a few highlights for those who are interested and who weren’t there.
The Hate U Give started as a short story when AT was in college, for her senior project, which she expanded afterwards. It was inspired by the different conversations about the deaths of people like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice that she’d have with her white middle class school friends compared to the ones she had in her neighbourhood – the ‘hood’, as she described it. She said ‘I’m surprised that the book I wrote for myself got me here.’
Orangeboy was an ‘accident’ – inspired by PL visiting Winter Wonderland with her daughter. It was partly inspired by wondering what it’s like to be a little bit naughty – ‘What is it like to have that hint of badness?’
PL is concerned with representation in books – she grew up with books with no POC in them, just ‘swishy haired white women’ (such a great phrase) whose experiences she didn’t share.
AT said ‘It’s no secret we have a diversity issue in publishing’ (very true!), adding ‘We need diverse books, and we need diversity in publishing.’ She also added that she could see herself in hiphop where she couldn’t see herself in books, and added ‘Kids need to be able to see what they can do.’
Talking about the ending of THUG, AT called it ‘hopeful’, and said ‘We don’t always get happy endings’, adding that if it had been a completely happy ending (no spoilers, but you probably know what I’m talking about), kids wouldn’t believe it. She also talked about code switching, which is when people move between two languages or dialects, and explained that it goes beyond language, citing a recent tweet in which the the writer said he used his middle name, Patrick, on job applications, instead of his first name, LaShawn. Another form of code switching was the way that she’d change the music on her car stereo as she approached her mostly white school, going from Tupac to the Jonas Brothers and McFly. She said that she wants to break down the white standard and that she wants to prove stereotypes wrong – for instance, the character of Mav (who’s brilliant, a strong, involved father) demonstrating that the damaging stereotype of black men being absent fathers is untrue. She demonstrated through him that many intelligent people use AAVE.
Harry Potter was also touched on! The concepts of snitching, codes, gangs – apparent in THUG, obviously, but also in HP. AT said ‘Can you imagine if Hermione had been cast as a black girl, what that would have done for so many black girls?’ She added that she imagined Hermione as black when she read the books. She loves the books and is desperate for a tweet from JK Rowling but wishes they’d been more diverse.
PL mentioned the character Tish in Orangeboy, who I absolutely loved. She said that she’s received requests to write more about her (I really hope that happens!). She was the 15 year old that PL wanted to be, with passion and loyalty. It was important to her to have a young woman with agency over her life in the novel.
They also discussed the nature of family in their books. PL said that she feels some responsibility when writing about black families, and wants to bust stereotypes. She said that as a writer, you feel some responsibility when writing about things that you personally care about. AT wanted to honestly show a working class family living in the hood, demonstrating that where they live does not take away from their values. She also mentioned the constantly absent parents in YA books – it isn’t realistic. Starr needed her parents in this book. I also have the words ‘When Bella’s momma met Edward’ written down – enough said. Bella Swan definitely needed a little more parental guidance.
AT also talked about the character of Uncle Carlos, a police officer. She felt that he was an interesting way to explore the issue – she isn’t at all anti-cop, she’s anti-police brutality. She said that a lot of black police officers find that they’re viewed as sell-outs in the uniform and suspects out of it. Police officers should hold their fellow officers accountable for their actions, as Carlos does in the novel – if that happened, it would build trust in communities. The police act as a gang – they don’t snitch on each other and they cover up each other’s actions.
They also discussed how to get the humanities into schools – PL mentioned that it’s often about that one champion within schools and teachers making sure that they do it themselves. AT agreed that it’s on teachers to bring diversity into their classrooms. The USA literary canon is (like the UK one) mostly made up of old white dead men. Parents need to stop depending on schools and the government to provide diversity, because they won’t.
Sensitivity readers: AT thinks they’re extremely important, saying ‘I never want a teeanger to pick up my book and be harmed by something they read – that’s on me… We have to listen more than we speak. Write what you want to write, but don’t be mad when someone calls you out.’ PL agreed, and added that the UK is somewhat different as people have more contact with each other. There’s a lot of responsibility when writing.
My stand-out quote of the evening, from AT: ‘We [black people] can’t fix racism. We didn’t create it.’
All in all, it was an incredible evening listening to two incredible women. These books are those rare titles that are absolutely worthy of all the hype they’ve been given (more detailed reviews of both of them to come).