When Angie Thomas was 6, her mother took her to a Jackson, Mississippi, public library near where the family lived. She wanted to introduce her daughter to a place where she would be shielded from the drug violence on their streets—and initiate her into the world of literature.

In 2009, at age 21, Thomas, a confirmed book nerd who could also rap, was a college junior studying creative writing when she heard about Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old Oakland man fatally shot in the back by a police officer. Then, in 2012, it was Trayvon Martin, and in 2014, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Thomas thought, These could be boys I grew up with.

There's a line from a Tupac Shakur poem that had long resonated with her: “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?” Years earlier, she’d begun working on a piece of fiction, the story of Starr, a teenage girl living in a tough neighborhood who witnesses the killing of her best friend by police. In the wake of so much real-life death, the project took on new meaning. On an old laptop held together by packing tape, Thomas began channeling her own anger and grief into Starr. Just as Starr becomes involved in a group a lot like Black Lives Matter, Thomas had come to see her novel writing as a form of activism.

She completed a draft of the manuscript, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. Via Twitter, she reached out to an agent who agreed to rep her. In the process of polishing the book, Thomas received a $2,000 grant from the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. She bought a better computer. She finished writing. Within months, the novel sparked a six-figure, 13-publisher bidding war, landing at the Harper Collins imprint Balzer + Bray.

The Hate U Give, with Starr at its center, vaulted to the top of the New York Times best-seller list when it was published early this year. But what Thomas finds most fulfilling are the conversations she’s had with the thousands of young readers she meets in schools, libraries, and bookstores across the country, who tell her they’ve never met an author who looked like them.

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