This book is so important. It’s a book that I can not only see being hugely successful, but one that I believe will continue to be successful, and relevant, and maybe even studied in classrooms in the not-so-distant future. Inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement, this novel follows Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend Khalil at the hands of a white policeman. Living in a deprived community riddled with gang violence, where the sound of gunshots is a daily reality, Starr is also being educated at a posh school 45 minutes away and is one of the only black kids there. Against this background, this book serves as a stunning exploration of racism, prejudice, gang violence, police brutality and interracial relationships in modern America. It completely opened my eyes to a whole world that I am personally just so far removed from. Although it’s technically a YA book, I would hesitate to recommend it to anybody under the age of 16 (due to the swearing and frequent violence), but I believe that anybody over this age, both teenagers and adults, would enjoy and derive great benefit from reading it.
This book evoked such strong feelings in me – it is rare that I feel quite so strongly while reading a book. I felt total shock, impotent fury, complete disbelief not only that this kind of thing happens in the world, but that it happens over and over again. The fact that this young man, a child really, has been murdered in cold blood for no reason whatsoever is explained away by the fact that he sold drugs, that he was a gang member, that he probably had it coming anyway, that the policeman claimed that he thought Khalil was reaching for a “gun”, which turned out to be a hairbrush. I also felt such deep sympathy for Starr and her difficulties with being “herself”, torn as she is between two such different worlds. She can’t be too mouthy or outspoken at school for fear of being labelled the “angry/sassy black girl”; nor can she talk too much about her privileged school in her own neighbourhood in case she sounds stuck up. Angie Thomas does an amazing job of creating complex characters with such depth that they became real people to me – which is the whole aim of the novel: to rip to shreds the view that the victims of these crimes and their communities are nothing more than thugs and gang members.
Although I did indeed feel a great deal of anger and frustration while reading this, my strongest feelings were the warm fuzzies! I had so much admiration and just LOVE for Starr’s family and her wider community of Garden Heights. Now (and this is going to make me sound about 80 years old) I tend to have a problem with romance in YA, and insta-love, and “shipping”, etc., but if I were to ship a couple it would be Starr’s parents. They are wonderfully funny, supportive, adorable together and they just love each other and their children so deeply. If, indeed, another example of why you must not judge people based on one aspect of their character or their past were needed, Starr’s Dad Maverick is it. Imprisoned for three years when Starr was a baby for his implication in gang-related crimes, Mav left that world and is now just such a good dad to Starr and her brothers. The descriptions of Starr’s neighbours in Garden Heights, from Mrs Rooks and her red velvet cake to the hairdresser Mr Lewis, presented an image of a tight-knit community which fiercely contested the way in which neighbourhoods such as Garden Heights are typically portrayed. The kindness and unity of the people of Garden Heights shone through, in spite of the daily threat of gang violence, poverty and prejudice.
I also liked this book because it had a lot of scenarios in it that might help young people (and not-so-young people) to understand and navigate a range of delicate or controversial issues surrounding race, friendship, black and white cultural differences, etc. in their real lives. Thomas uses Starr’s interactions with her friends, her family and her white boyfriend Chris to give advice on, for example, how to deal with friends who are culturally insensitive or racist, or what it is and isn’t OK to say or ask. She also clears up certain misunderstandings or assumptions about black and white culture sensitively and intelligently. In particular, the conversation where Chris asks why some black people have names that aren’t “normal” stands out for me – the answer is awesome! Starr’s journey from being afraid to stand out to having the courage to speak up about what she witnessed would, I think, also be highly inspirational to young women and men who are perhaps struggling in a similar way with their identity.
I can’t say everything I want to say about this book in a short review (which is getting longer by the minute, sorry) and my words don’t do it justice. It’s important, it’s powerful, it makes you laugh and cry and just about everything in between. The ending is a powerful reminder of exactly why this book is necessary. It’s up there with my top books so far this year and it’s going to take a lot to knock it off that spot. Just read it.
*Starr* Rating: 5/5