How Hip Hop Serves as a NYT Bestselling Author’s Muse

Angie Thomas’ love of Hip Hop fueled her passion for storytelling, and just like the rappers she admires have sought to perfect their art form, she has sought – and succeeded – at doing the same.

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Bestselling author Angie Thomas

Her debut novel is her evidence, and when the movie version of the book hits the big screen in October 2018, her desire to give voice and humanity to a sector of Americans who often feel they have neither is expected to reach fever pitch.

Thomas is the bestselling author of the award-winning New York Times bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give.  In addition to reaching the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list, the book is being sold in more than 40 nations, and Thomas has traveled the globe to expound upon its themes, including the narrative that Black Lives Matter and that every child deserves to be heard and valued.

In late July 2018, several hundred residents of metro Richmond, Virginia – including teens, librarians, book club members, readers and writers of all backgrounds and ages, and me – converged onIMG_0713 the Chesterfield County Public Library‘s North Courthouse Branch to see Thomas and hear wit, wisdom and words of encouragement pour from her lips.

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Angie Thomas spoke at the Chesterfield County Public Library North Courthouse Branch

Time seemed to stand still during her 90-minute talk as she mesmerized the audience with the story – her story – of being a 6-year-old girl reading Jet magazine (which she called that era’s “Facebook for black people”) in her home and stumbling upon the picture of Emmett Till in his casket – an image her mother took time to explain in depth, leaving Thomas with the message to “know your worth, but know that not everyone values you the way I do, simply because of the color of your skin.”

She also shared her memory of being an 8-year-old enjoying the swing set in her not-so-safe neighborhood park when she heard Hip Hop lyrics for the first time, in the verses of  Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, which described the very reality of her hard-knock life. Then, there was her pivotal memory of seeing the late Tupac Shakur for the first time, in news coverage that cast him as a rebellious yet intelligent rapper. Soon after, she heard his music and his commentary, including the explanation for his THUG LIFE tattoo: The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.  “Meaning (that) what society gives us as youth, bites (society) when we wild out,” Thomas explained during her talk.

While acknowledging the downsides of Hip Hop – its often controversial and profanity-laden lyrics and many verses that disparage females – Thomas still gave a nod to the musical genre for waking up generations of people who often feel invisible, forgotten and frustrated, and helping them (including her) find their voice.

Throughout her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, she heard stories of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his own front yard, not far from where she lived; and in 2015, as the reality of Florida teen Trayvon Martin‘s killer being acquitted of murder stunned her spirit, so did her desire to become a social justice warrior.

Rather than pick up the weapons she so despised for their role in harming people of color, she decided to model the rappers she had long revered and use her words as her sword. The Hate U Give was born as a short story for a college senior project, then grew into the novel we know today.

Thomas’ captive Chesterfield County library audience thanked her for her willingness to write a story that scared her; and one Caucasian middle school student asked for advice on how she could encourage her friends and classmates to read the book and try to understand kids who differ from them in some way.

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Angie Thomas during Q&A

Thomas told her to keep being herself – a brave “book recommender” – and serving as an ambassador for what it looks like to be accepting of others.

It’s a path that Thomas is determined to continue walking, with each new story she births and each new audience she introduces to her personal experience of being a little girl who had everything going against her until she heard herself reflected in lyrics (musical storytelling) that legitimatized her existence.

Because she believes “books can change the world,” Thomas intends to be that light for a whole new generation of young minds – whether they read her novels, watch her movie, hear her speak or encounter others who have been transformed by the messages in her words.

Her library talk was an invitation to everyone in the audience to individually and collectively become literary citizens who create meaningful paths to knowledge, understanding and connectedness.

Stacy Hawkins Adams

Chat With the Author: Writing for Young People Stirs Her

Meet award-winning author Gigi Amateau.

Gigi has penned seven books for children and young adults and has a heart for telling stories that help youths feel connected and valued. Her most recent novel, Two for Joy, is a three-generational story about family caregiving and about how a child and an elder accept each other wholly.  Enjoy her Q&A with LifeUntapped, in which she details her author journey and shares about her books and characters.

What is your primary goal as an author?  I hope that my readers will connect with something in their own lives that makes them curious, inspired, or willing to keep going. The themes that I return to tend to be: access, belonging, overcoming trauma, resilience, intergenerational connections, and a sense of place.

What has been the most surprising feedback you’ve received from readers about your novels?  I recently received a letter from a young man in southside Virginia who had read Come August, Come Freedom. He wrote, “I always hated anything evolving (sic) slavery, but this book expanded my views… Gabriel is kind of like me; he loves his family, he’s strong willed, and he’s physically strong.” He went on to share how he related to the book. I keep his letter on my desk; it means so much that he took the time to write it.

What has been the most surprising aspect of your author journey? Every book takes on a different shape and a different process. When I think I have figured out how to write a book? Wrong!

How do you continue growing as a writer?  By following my curiosity – I think curiosity is one of the most important traits of being human. There are so many ways that writing fulfills me. If I limit myself to thinking that I am only a writer if I am publishing or writing books, then I set myself up for disappointment and frustration, because

I believe that my specific calling is to use words and language in the best form for the idea I want to release into the world.

Sometimes, that’s a book. Other times a grant, a letter, a post, an academic paper, or an essay may be the best form. It’s all good.

Who are two or three writers you admire or consider mentors?  I admire Judy Blume so much. She’s given me some great advice over the years. The best: Always be working on something new and read your manuscript out loud. Writers I love to read include: Edward P. Jones, Edwidge Danticat, Silas House, and Susann Cokal.

What else are you passionate about, i.e. if you weren’t an author, what else would you doing?  I’m passionate about old people, and I’m passionate about growing old with people I love, in a community I love. My favorite tree, out in Cartersville, Virginia is probably 300 or 400 years old. Being near that specific tree energizes me and makes me think of elderhood in new and different ways. I think creation has so much to offer us; my old tree always helps me to think about what it means to thrive and be resilient. I’ve recently returned to VCU in the Master of Gerontology program in order to study resilience and trauma in older adults and the longterm care workforce. I am already writing in new and different ways and I love it!

More About Gigi Amateau: Gigi’s first book for young adults, Claiming Georgia Tate, was published by Candlewick Press in 2005. The Wall Street Journal called the book “an ambitious push into the young adult market.” She is also the author of A Certain Strain of Peculiar, which was named a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year,  and Chancey of the Maury River, selected as a William Allen White Masters list title for grades 3-5. In 2012, Gigi received a Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts. Come August, Come Freedom, her first work of historical fiction, was selected as a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, a 2013 Jefferson Cup honor book, and the Library of Virginia’s 2013 People’s Choice Fiction Award. In 2015, Candlewick published Two for Joy and Dante of the Maury River. Her first short story, “Good Bean,” was published last November in an anthology titled Abundant Grace, edited by Richard Peabody. Gigi has worked in the health and human services sector for nearly 30 years and is a certified yoga instructor. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Gerontology at VCU. She lives with her family in Richmond, Va. Learn more about Gigi at www.gigiamateau.com or follow her on Twitter: @giamateau.