I love Angie Thomas’s YA novel, The Hate U Give. I read it when it was published and felt as if I had been living in a stuffy room and now, at last, somebody opened the windows and let the light and the fresh air in — somebody was talking about the truths of racism, oppression, police brutality, and resistance.
The success of The Hate U Give emboldened me to continue with my own YA novel, The F Words, whose first draft I had just finished. I strongly wanted to write about the truths of working class existence for high school students, just as Thomas wrote about the truths of Black oppression. My novel follows a parallel course, with white and Latino protagonists instead of Black. The parallel course isn’t surprising: any novel about high school students is going to be set partly inside the school and follow the path of the school day. And any novel about political protest is going to have scenes of demonstrations and rallies that take place on the streets.
One of the most powerful aspects of The Hate U Give is this: you feel on every page that Thomas has lived this. That she knows exactly what she’s depicting. That she is shouting out the truth about the lives of these particular characters.
That is exactly what I intended to do with The F Words: depict the reality of working class kids in public schools today — a “today” in which the ruling class is actively, maliciously, and mercilessly destroying public education. In Chicago alone, Mayor Rahm Emmanual and the Chicago School Board closed 54 of the city’s public schools in one year. Fifty-four! More closings than in any other city.
It is not enough for the ruling class that the working class — Black, white, Latino, Native, Asian — already receives an education inferior to that of the middle class (we won’t even talk about the ruling class itself, with its elite schools). No: the ruling class wants to remove all hope from working class kids. Make them so illiterate, so unschooled, so deprived of the arts and the sciences that they humbly accept the fact that all that awaits them are minimum-wage jobs or enlisting in the military.
But the working class is not accepting this. Throughout Chicago and other cities, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and students themselves organize to protest the closing of these vital neighborhood schools. Not only do these groups protest the closing of such schools: they demand, along with the Chicago Teachers Union, that the schools be revitalized. Torn down if necessary, and built anew. With a librarian in each school, a nurse in each school, adequate classrooms, smaller class size.
It was in the middle of this reality of school protests that I wrote The F Words. As the book begins, sophomore Cole Renner is angry because his father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for supposedly “inciting to violence” — but all he did was organize the neighborhood protests against the closing of the neighborhood Euclid Grade School. Because he’s caught in the act of tagging the school walls with the f word, Cole is actually “saved.” He’s saved by his English teacher, who requires him to write two poems a week, each about a word that starts with the letter F.
This assignment, plus his participation in the demonstrations led by his father, plus his desire to help his best friend Felipe Ramirez win the class election gets Cole to thinking and analyzing. He grows. Like Starr Carter of The Hate U Give, Cole Renner is on his way to becoming a leader of the working class struggle for justice.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.