- Associated Press - Sunday, March 20, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Angela Thomas’ love affair with books began the day her life almost ended.

The rising author, whose upcoming Black Lives Matter-inspired young-adult novel “The Hate U Give” sparked a bidding war among 13 publishing houses, was about 6 years old when she heard the crackle of gunshots in Aaron Henry Park in Jackson.

Thomas was enjoying a bike ride with friends when two young men started shooting at each other.

Angela’s mother, Julia, watched helplessly from their front yard.

The park was close enough to their home in the Georgetown community that Julia could usually keep a close eye on her daughter - that day the stone’s throw-distance didn’t matter.

“I was a scared mom, because I couldn’t get to her,” she said in a telephone interview. Bullets seemed to zing past in every direction, one finding a resting stop in the tree of their neighbor’s home.

“In a situation like that, what can a parent do?” said Julia, the pain raw in her voice. “Pray. Lord, protect my baby.”

She believes it was divine intervention that Angela, who she calls Angie, “had sense to go the other way.”

“I really got into books right after that,” said Thomas. “My mom wanted me to see there was more to the world than this.”

At night, the two would snuggle up with a Mother Goose book or Grimm’s Fairytales and enter into a world of escapism.

“I wanted her to learn and appreciate the different things in life,” said Julia.

One night after their reading session had ended, Thomas asked to tell her mother a story.

“Her little imagination; Lord, I saw it was awesome then,” said Julia.

Thomas’ budding writing talent impressed her third-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary, who allowed Thomas to read her stories to the class every Friday after lunch.

Now at the age of 28, Thomas has inked a two-book deal with HarperCollins imprint Balzer + Bray, reportedly worth six figures, according to Publishers Weekly.

Her debut novel “The Hate U Give,” slated for a spring 2017 release, is centered around a 16-year-old named Starr, who navigates between the poverty-stricken slum she has grown up in and her upper-crust suburban prep school, according to an official synopsis for the book. Her life is upended when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her best friend by a police officer. When she is called to testify in court, what she does or doesn’t say could destroy her community or even get her killed.

Thomas envisioned the work as a short story during her senior year at Belhaven University.

Two years earlier, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man in Oakland, California, had been fatally shot by a white officer, Johannes Mehserle, while restrained in handcuffs. Frustrations with the circumstances surrounding Grant’s death and a manslaughter conviction for Mehserle boiled over into street demonstrations.

“I remember thinking what if that happened in Jackson,” Thomas said. “What if that happened in my neighborhood?”

That anxiousness manifested into a plotline. Also providing fodder were the stereotypes Thomas said follow those living in inner cities. She recalled an incident where classmates expressed concerns about traveling to her neighborhood.

After graduation she stepped away the material. She didn’t return to it until 2015.

“I wanted to make sure I approached it not just in anger, but with love even,” Thomas said.

Last June she reached out to on Twitter to Bent Agency’s Brooks Sherman, now her literary agent, to ask if he thought publishers would show interest in a title influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time, Sherman had been looking for a story that dealt with the social justice movement. He was excited about Thomas’s query, but nervous.

“My particular feeling was it (the book) would be more effective if it focused on the stories before the message. I didn’t want it come off as a manifesto. I wanted it to be organic,” he said.

He encouraged Thomas to send her material and became enthralled in the first chapter.

Sherman said that although the book is topical, the “relationships that the main character is dealing with are somewhat timeless.”

“This is not an anti-cop book at all,” Thomas said, addressing a common criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It is just a book showing we have a problem on all sides and we have to work together,” she noted.

Randall Smith, chair of Belhaven’s creative writing program, said he imagines “The Hate U Give” will become required reading in educational programs across the country.

“I would love for my son and his classes to read it,” said Smith in a telephone interview. Smith, who has a multi-racial family - his daughter is black, while he, his wife and son are white - also connected to the novel on a personal level.

“I’m Angela’s professor, but I guarantee you I feel as proud as a father.”

Thomas, a 2015 recipient of the Walter Dean Myer’s We Need Diverse Books grant, said it’s also important to offer characters for “kids who are so often not depicted in books.”

She works as an assistant to Bishop Ronnie Crudup, the pastor of New Horizon Church International in Jackson, managing the church’s website and social media accounts. Most of her time is spent “trying to keep up with Bishop Crudup,” a prominent figure in Jackson.

“It gives you a good idea of what to maybe expect as an author,” Thomas laughed.


Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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