When the killing of George Floyd ignited outrage across the country, author Angie Thomas joined the masses protesting police brutality and racial injustice on the streets of her hometown of Jackson, Miss. Amid fervent chants of “Black Lives Matter” and clenched fists raised in solidarity, Thomas said she saw something that nearly brought her to tears.
“When I got there, one of the first things I saw were young people with signs that resembled my book cover,” Thomas told TIME’s Books Editor Lucy Feldman for a TIME100 Talks discussion.
Thomas’ 2017 debut book features an illustration of a Black girl with curly hair and Jordans, the protagonist, Starr Carter, holding a protest sign emblazoned with the title of the book: The Hate U Give. Her young readers arrived at the Mississippi demonstration with protest signs replacing the book title with their own messages.
“One thing we’re seeing right now is [young people] realizing that power,” Thomas said. “I’m honored to know that I can be a microphone for them and amplify them even louder.”
Amid the current reckoning on systemic racism and inequality in society, anti-racist literature has been flying off (virtual) shelves and topping New York Times Best Seller list. While many believe that reading Black stories and perspectives is one critical step to confronting systemic racism, Thomas says the “power of books” surpasses the current social upheaval.
She believes literature can empower the next generation of leaders.
“I believe in the power of books and how they shape young people for the future,” Thomas declared. “I’m very hopeful that we’re giving them better tools so that they could be better leaders than any of us ever imagined.”
The 31-year-old author has witnessed the impact of books firsthand with her own novel The Hate U Give, which topped The New York Times young adult best-seller list for weeks and was adapted into a film starring Amandla Stenberg.
In the Black Lives Matter-inspired story, Starr Carter attempts to navigate a delicate social balance between the Black community where she grew up and her new private school with a mostly white, affluent student body. However, after an encounter with the police ends with her childhood friend killed, Starr must learn to use her voice to seek justice.
The key to equipping young audiences lies in diverse storytelling, according to Thomas. Through her own fictional characters, the YA novelist has attempted to create “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” so that young people can see themselves—or see people unlike themselves—to build empathy.
Given the predominantly white Western canon taught in public schools and higher education, it’s not hard to see why compassion appears to be lacking in the generations past and present, Thomas noted.
“If some of our current political leaders read books about young people who were unlike them when they were kids, maybe we wouldn’t have to say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Thomas said.
Thomas attempted to help build compassion for Black lives not only with Starr but with the beloved character Maverick — Starr’s doting father.
Maverick’s journey from a life on the streets to a family man is one that enamored many of her readers. Now, it’s the subject of her upcoming novel “Concrete Rose.”
The Mississippi native believes much of her audience resonated with the character because he “represents the [Black men] who are right around us every single day.”
“I see Maverick as a symbol for most Black men and George Floyd,” Thomas said. “For me, Maverick represents so many of the young men we’ve lost in this in this Black Lives Matter movement.”
Three years after its release, The Hate U Give continues to echo the reality of many Black Americans, whose loved ones are disproportionately threatened and killed by police. Thomas only hopes that those echoes will continue to have seismic waves on the young people who read her novels — and inspire them to be the change they seek.
“If my legacy is that I inspired the next generation of activists then I’m happy with that,” Thomas said. “It’s an honor.”