New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality7 min read

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“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.

“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.

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This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.

In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.

Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.

“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”

The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.

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While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.

The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.

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Ms. Thomas’s first novel explores the issues of racism and police brutality. It set off a bidding war among publishers.

Credit
Mark Makela for The New York Times

“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.

Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.

The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.

“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”

As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.

“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”

In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.

But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.

“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.

One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.

“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.

Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.

On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.

The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.

One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.

“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”

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