My Summary: The personal becomes intensely political for Starr Carter when she witnesses her friend Khalil’s murder at the hands of a police officer. What starts as her personal trauma becomes the center of national news and fuel for anti-racist activism. Suddenly, her decision to stay silent or speak up is no longer just about herself but rather the bigger fight for justice in the face of systemic oppression.
Wow. I was stuck in a bit of a reading slump during February, but this book yanked me out of that slump. My brain is bursting with thoughts and feelings and…literary energy? I really hope I can do this book justice (pun not intended) in discussing my reactions.
It’s already very clear from the description that this book is about social justice, and it doesn’t disappoint in the execution. I don’t know how else to describe it except “art.” There was so much thought and insight funneled into weaving together all of the elements of this story. Each character and scene had its place and its purpose. There was nothing extraneous. The beautiful thing is that the story still feels organic rather than contrived.
I’ll start with the characters. There are quite a few of them in this story: Starr, her various friends and classmates at Williamson and from Garden Heights, her family, her community members, and so on. I never got any of them confused because each of them has distinct personalities and lives of their own. Moreover, Angie does a fabulous job of balancing the complex web of relationships between them all.
Among my favorites were Starr’s parents. They aren’t the perfect couple in the sense that they never fight, but they were perfect in the sense that they are real with each other, stick with each other through thick and thin, and have this obvious chemistry and bond that shows through in their banter. On top of that, they are great parents to Starr, Seven, and Sekani and do what they can to protect and support them through the tough situations they face and provide a safe and nurturing environment for them.
The importance of Starr’s parents cannot be understated given that our society devalues Black fatherhood and Black motherhood. Systemic and state-sanctioned violence against Black communities includes the tearing apart of Black families, starting in the days of slavery when Black children were taken from their parents and sold to different masters and continuing into the present with the mass incarceration of Black men and disproportionate intervention from Child Protective Services in Black families. With this history and current reality in mind, having present and positive parental figures in a story about Black teens and kids is a huge deal.
Another character dynamic I really enjoyed was Starr’s relationships with people at Williamson, her mostly-white private school. This includes her white boyfriend, Chris, white friend Hailey, and Chinese American friend Maya. Her relationship with each of these characters exemplifies a particular kind of interpersonal racial dynamic.
I’ll start with Chris. I generally don’t fuck with white boys, but Chris is an example of a fairly decent white boy. For one, he does not fetishize Starr and likes her as an individual. Their relationship is built upon various common interests, and Chris clearly shows that he cares about Starr by being considerate of her feelings and respecting her boundaries.
Aside from being the cute boyfriend, Chris’s character is one of the ways that this book critiques and interrogates whiteness. In some places, this is very literal, as Starr, Seven, and her Black friends ask Chris pointed questions about his whiteness and break down the assumption of whiteness as default and thus teach him some perspective. While he is not perfectly aware of all racial issues, he is willing to step back, listen, be self-critical of his privilege and ignorance, and learn.
Hailey’s character has a similar function in critiquing whiteness and serves as something of a foil to Chris. Rather than listen to Starr’s grievances, she plays victim, gaslights Starr and Maya, and epitomizes white fragility. She uses every trick in the white playbook to deflect and derail critiques of her racism. What I enjoyed was how Angie handled the conflict and the progression from Starr following Hailey uncritically out of habit to actively questioning and reevaluating her friendship with her with help from her mother and Maya.
Maya was one of my favorite characters in the book. As I mentioned above, she’s Chinese American, so I could relate to her a lot as a Taiwanese American. I was excited to learn that she plays basketball because heaven knows we don’t have enough fictional Jeremy Lins to rep the sporty Asian Americans out there. Aside from challenging stereotypes, Maya’s character is notable because she challenges Hailey’s racism, both Sinophobia and antiblackness. She and Starr form what they call a “minority alliance” in calling out Hailey, and that moment stood out to me because it’s an explicit representation and celebration of Black and Asian solidarity. Toward the beginning of the book, I was holding my breath wondering if Maya would turn out to be one of the all-too-familiar Problematic Asians who engage in antiblackness to curry favor with white supremacy. I was extremely relieved and elated to see her go in the opposite direction. Having this “minority alliance” on page absolutely sends the right message to young Asian Americans about the importance of standing in solidarity with other people of color.
One of the greatest things about this book is how unapologetically Black it is. It is loaded with references to Black Power movements, particularly the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Understandably, Starr uses Standard American English at her private school and certain contexts because she doesn’t want to be stereotyped and looked down upon, but in other contexts, she uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and is true to her roots. This is known as code-switching and is common not only for Black people but also other POC. Later in the book, Starr progresses toward unpacking the respectability politics and classism that shape her experience at Williamson and the way she views and juxtaposes her school and her neighborhood.
Angie’s choice of settings for this book really brings to the fore issues of race and class. Garden Heights is urban, poor, and Black; Williamson and its associated locale is suburban, rich, and white. Starr’s status as an outsider in the latter is painfully apparent, and she very much aware and critical of how she and the handful of other Black students are tokenized. She is “cool” by liberty of being Black in a majority white space, but that status is far from being a privilege because, as she points out, “It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.” This statement speaks to the way white people commodify, accessorize, and appropriate blackness as it is convenient and beneficial to them without experiencing the the stigma and oppression of being Black in a white supremacist society.
Whereas at Williamson, Starr feels hypervisible, in Garden Heights, she feels invisible (until her status as a witness in Khalil’s murder changes things, anyway). Garden Heights is where the author really explores the complexity of Blackness. There’s an interesting blend of familiarity and danger: familiarity that stems from knowing intimately the rhythms and the [gang] rules that govern the neighborhood as well as the faces and lives that inhabit the space and make it home, danger from the violence that is part and parcel of gang-dominated areas, the poverty due to systemic denial of economic opportunities and development to Black people and communities, and the threat of state-sanctioned violence from police and the judicial system.
The author’s portrayal of these nuances and dynamics calls into question the illusion of “choice” and the possibility of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” that white people employ to justify Black poverty and second-class status. Individual choices are never free from context or constraints, and this book is very explicit about naming and describing the systems that are rigged against Black people, largely through the character of Maverick, Starr’s father, who is an ex-con, but also through Khalil and DeVante, who get caught up in the gang and drug-dealing scene in order to provide for and protect their families in the absence of other opportunities.
Garden Heights also offers an insider’s perspective on the internalized racism in Black communities. Mr. Lewis is a follower of Dr. King’s words and is less receptive toward more radical figures like Huey Newton and Malcolm X, who symbolize not racial harmony but Black power. (Although Dr. King wasn’t really a moderate and was in fact critical of white people, he has been co-opted by the mainstream as a “safe” and palatable figure to white people and is weaponized to silence Black resistance.) There are characters like Uncle Carlos who engage in the same kind of victim-blaming as white people to rationalize Khalil’s extrajudicial execution, invoking fallacies like “black-on-black crime.”
Another nuanced situation this book tackles is fighting police brutality versus hating individual police officers. Starr’s maternal uncle Carlos is a cop and a colleague of the officer who shot and killed Khalil. He’s also the man who helped raised her while her father was in jail for three years when she was a toddler. There’s a lot of internal struggle within Starr in juggling her feelings toward a corrupt institution that aids and abets violence against Black people and her personal feelings of affection toward Carlos, who happens to be an officer. It’s not always as simple as us versus them, but it’s important to recognize that the systemic nature of police brutality means complicity despite any good intentions on the part of individual cops. Between Carlos and a Latina officer, you see that complicity in racist systems can include people of color who have internalized ideologies that criminalize blackness.
This book is based on the Black Lives Matter movement, and it is very true to real life in its depiction of the events following a case of police murdering a Black person. The protests, the looting, the police crackdown and militarization, and the media coverage of and subsequent social media responses to these events coincided very closely with what I remember reading and watching while following the BLM movement on social media, as well as my first-hand experience participating in a small-scale BLM protest at my alma mater last year.
One particular thing I have to applaud in the depiction of events is the references to social media, which are critical to the worldbuilding in this story. Although I’ve seen some writers say that they don’t like to reference social media and technology in their work for fear of dating it for readers in the future, I’d argue that excluding those references renders their work nearly illegible because technology shapes the social fabric of our lives and is critical to establishing the context and constraints of a story.
Technological advances result in the compression of space and time and also affect social power dynamics. Social media in particular has undermined the dominance of mainstream media and given platforms to the oppressed, increasing the accessibility of information and transforming the ways in which activism plays out. It has been absolutely critical in building up and disseminating information for Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. It is an important means of talking back against the dominant narratives that dehumanize Black people and other people of color. Angie’s mentions of Black Twitter and Black Tumblr not only reflect our current reality, they also pay tribute to the voices and communities that have sustained BLM.
And without explicitly naming BLM, Angie gave several shoutouts to the movement in various ways: “I can’t breathe.” “[Khalil’s] life mattered.” “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando.” These references allow this fictional story to resonate and create dialogue with reality.
At the heart of this story is the theme of the consequences of silence and the power of speaking up. Starr struggles to speak up about what happened with Khalil because she is afraid of the backlash it will bring, from her community and from the people in power. Much of her growth in this story is tied to overcoming her fears and doing what is right rather than what is easy. As someone who has gone through (and still goes through) that same struggle, Starr’s journey to be confident in speaking truth to power was very relatable and very heartening.
Although this story focuses on a very serious issue, it also contains moments of humor and lightness. There is a delicate balance required to make this work and not cheapen or trivialize the serious aspects, and Angie definitely nails it. The humor is laugh-out-loud funny and the brighter moments offer some much-needed respite from the darkness that weighs on the oppressed. While talking about racism is important, it’s also important to make space for Black teens and kids to live normal lives and have some fun.
All in all, this book truly takes you through so many feelings, very intense ones at that, because you are so immersed in Starr’s life and world that you empathize deeply with her situation. It is one of the most vividly rendered contemporary YA novels I have read.
Before I close, I’ll talk about three small things that bothered me while reading this book. They weren’t deal-breakers, but they definitely left enough of an impression that I feel the need to comment on them.
The first was the overuse of the word “crazy.” If it had been just once or twice, I probably would have let it go, but it was thrown around a lot casually, and as someone who has multiple mental illnesses, it was a bit uncomfortable to read, especially when it was used in a negative way.
The second was the repeated slut-shaming of Seven’s mother, Iesha. While it is evident that she is bad parent to Seven and his sisters, Kenya and Lyric, that has nothing to do with how much skin she shows and everything to do with the poor decisions she’s made regarding her children. I wish there hadn’t been such an emphasis on how she dressed.
The third and final thing was the issue of Maya’s ethnicity. At the beginning of the book, Maya mentions visiting her great-grandparents in Taipei. Based on that statement, I assumed she was Taiwanese because Taipei is the capital of Taiwan. However, later on, Maya explicitly states she’s Chinese, and that left me with several questions: Were her great-grandparents just visiting Taipei, or do they live there? If they live there, were they born and raised in Taiwan, or did they immigrate to Taiwan from China post-1949, after the Chinese Civil War? If her family is from Taiwan, why does she identify as Chinese?
A very common microaggression for Taiwanese people like me is people conflating Taiwan and China and saying Taiwanese people are “really just Chinese.” There are some people from/in Taiwan who identify as Chinese, or as both Taiwanese and Chinese, but the number of people who exclusively identify as Taiwanese has increased over the years and is at an all-time high right now. The decision to identify as Taiwanese versus Chinese is very much a politically motivated one. Given that Taiwan is not formally recognized as a sovereign nation by the UN and does not have official diplomatic relations with most of the nations in the world (including the United States) due to pressure from China, the erasure of Taiwanese identity, even in fiction, is a big deal. The book is still amazing and I do love it, but what might be one small detail to most readers was deeply personal and painful for me as a Taiwanese American. I hope that any writers who are reading this will be mindful of these issues of identity and the politics behind them while crafting their characters from marginalized backgrounds.
Recommendation: Read this book, live this book, love this book. It deserves every one of the eight starred reviews it received and more.