Angie Thomas Invites Readers to a Carter Family Reunion with 'Concrete Rose'

Posted by Sharon on January 1, 2021
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Angie Thomas was as stunned as her fans when she was spurred to write a prequel to The Hate U Give, her blockbuster 2017 YA debut inspired by police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. “I literally thought that when I wrote ‘The End’ on the Carter story, that was the end for me with those characters,” says Thomas about the family of Starr Carter, the 16-year-old Black protagonist of The Hate U Give, who witnesses the police killing of close friend Khalil.

But seeing her book brought to life in the 2018 film adaptation, Thomas found herself wanting to tell the story of how Maverick, Starr’s dad, became the man he is in The Hate U Give, a passionate Black father and husband who turned his back on King Lord life.
 
Concrete Rose is that story, a gripping and moving account of Maverick’s final year of high school, a year in which he becomes a dad at 17, deals drugs, loses his cousin to gang violence, and questions his relationships. We meet Lisa, Starr’s mom, Starr’s older brother Seven as a baby, and a baby Khalil. There’s also a cameo by another very famous YA character, as a baby, but you’ll have to read the book to find out who!
 
As with The Hate U Give, which has sold more than 3.4 million copies and been on The New York Times' bestseller list since its release, the new book’s title comes from Tupac Shakur, this time his poetry collection The Rose that Grew from Concrete. The late rapper remains a key literary influence for Thomas, and her third book is set just two years after his 1996 death.
 
Concrete Rose takes place in the fictional neighborhood of Garden Heights, the setting for The Hate U Give as well as Thomas’ second book, On the Come Up, the story of teen rapper Bri, which is also being adapted for the big screen. Meanwhile the award-winning author is hard at work on her fourth book (and a big departure), a middle grade fantasy novel featuring a Black girl in Mississippi.

Thomas spoke with Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth about countering stereotypes of Black masculinity, her hopes surrounding the fight for racial equality in America, and the joys of exploring African American mythology and folklore for her newest work. Their conversation has been lightly edited.

 
Goodreads: After you finished The Hate U Give, you said that was the last you’d write about Starr and her family. Can you talk us through how Concrete Rose came into being?

Angie Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I did not have any plans to return to the Carter family. I literally thought that when I wrote "The End" on the Carter story, that was the end for me with those characters. But I have to admit that even though The Hate U Give was about Starr and it was her story and I loved that character, my favorite character to write was Maverick.

And once the book came out, he was such a fan favorite, from young people who were like, "I love Mav," and young boys who were like, "Yo, Mav is dope," and then I’m having moms come up to me, like, "Oh, my god. That Maverick. I'd marry Maverick." So it was fascinating to see the wide range of people who connected with this character. But the question always came up, "I would love to know how did he become this guy that we see in The Hate U Give, this father, this man?" you know?

The fact of the matter is, for me, Maverick isn't a unicorn. I know a lot of Mavericks from my old neighborhood, so I know they exist. But so often young Black men and Black fathers are nonexistent or they're shown in a stereotypical way that people have accepted as normal when the reality is Maverick is normal. So talking with readers and having them ask me questions really made me ask myself those questions.

Then when we were filming the movie and I had the chance to speak with Russell Hornsby [the actor who plays Maverick], the questions he asked me about Maverick made me think about the character even deeper. Russell asked me things such as, "What was his relationship like with his mother? How did he and King start out as friends? What was the relationship like with Lisa? What was it like for him to become a father at a young age?" Russell really wanted to get into my head about the character.

When he asked me those things, I didn't have the answers preconceived, so I was coming up with stuff on the spot. And as I was telling him these things, I'm like, "That sounds good. Ooh wait, this could be a story.”

So I left the film set one day and I was telling myself, "You know what? Maybe the best way to answer these questions for my readers is to tell his story." So it was a combination of the film and the readers themselves that inspired me to tell Maverick's story in a book.

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GR: What were the biggest surprises for you when it came to writing the book?

AT: The biggest surprise was the fact that I could get into his head and his voice so easily. I am not a 17-year-old boy, but his voice and just his whole demeanor came easy to write.

But I was surprised along the way as far as the relationship with King and what that looked like when they were 17 years old. And the idea that also, when Maverick was 17, he was not Big Mav. He didn't even have his own identity then. He was still in his father’s shadow.

When I write him in The Hate U Give, he's so sure of himself. He knows who he is. So going back into him as a 17-year-old boy where he's still an insecure kid, still trying to figure himself out, that surprised me. But it was refreshing, too. And I hope that it's refreshing for my readers. We so often make young people feel as if, by 16, 17, 18, you need to have it all figured out, and that is the biggest lie ever told. We are constantly learning and growing. We're constantly evolving.

Despite some of the decisions Maverick makes, his intentions are always in the right place. And I was upset that I was surprised by that! His heart is always in the right place, even if his actions aren’t.

I think, too, I was surprised by his journey of fatherhood and what that looked like for him. I think my readers will be surprised when they read that, at the beginning—and I don't want to spoil it—but his attitude toward his whole situation was very different from the Maverick we come to at the end. That surprised me, but it felt right for that time. This character, he took me on a journey, and I enjoyed every second of it.

GR: The book gives us an interesting perspective on teen parenthood because, while we often see portrayals of single teen mothers, here we have Maverick struggling with suddenly becoming a single dad to infant Seven. Was that something you enjoyed getting into?

AT: I did. And I have to give credit where credit is due. I don't feel as if I could have done this story had it not been for Angela Johnson doing The First Part Last, 17 years back. And I say that because that book gave me permission to tell this story because it's a story about a young boy dealing with single teen parenthood. Like you were saying, we don't see that story a lot in literature and film, television, any of those mediums, but it happens.

And it was important for me to show that with Maverick, specifically, because the question, again, always comes up: How does he become the father that we see in The Hate U Give? He had to go through a lot to become that dad. And at 17, he didn't jump into being this picture-perfect father automatically. No. At 17, you're selfish. Babies and diapers and all of that, that's not on your radar until you're thrown into it. I wanted it to be as real as possible, so I knew I couldn't expect him to be unselfish from the get-go. It takes time to get there.

GR: The book is told entirely in Maverick’s voice, and he doesn’t do as much of the code switching that Starr does in The Hate U Give between her Garden Heights and prep school selves. Here’s a sample for readers from Chapter 1: “I clench my jaw. I oughta be used to them kinda jabs. Let a lot of fools in the set tell it, I ain’t as hard as my pops, ain’t as street as my pops, ain’t as good at anything as him.” What was it like immersing yourself in Maverick’s voice?

AT: It was easy, and I think it's because, for most of my life, I heard Mavericks every single day. Being in Mississippi, we have our own way of speaking, and I wanted to pay respect to that and to do it authentically.

I'm not a 17-year-old Black boy. And when you write somebody who does not share your identity, you need to be as respectful as possible and dedicated to getting it right. Every sentence that hit that page, it had to sound like it came from him.

So there are times where he may take S’s off of words or say "was" instead of "were." And there are people who are going to probably be like, "Oh, that's African American vernacular, blah, blah, blah.” And yeah, it is, but that doesn't take any value away from it. It's still a way of communicating. It's still a language. It's still a way we speak, and I really wanted to be in his voice, in his head 1,000 percent because there were so many people, too, who told me when reading The Hate U Give, "I don't code switch." There are kids who tell me, "I don't do that. I'm just going to be me." And I'm with them on that. I want them to be their true, authentic selves and for the rest of us to just adjust. And I hope that this book plays a role in that.

GR: You use the theme of gardening throughout—we see Mr. Wyatt teaching Maverick how to grow roses, and the book’s title comes from Tupac’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Did that come to mind the moment you thought of writing this book?

AT: It did. That was something that a lot of people brought up when talking about Maverick. They talked about the fact that he gardens in The Hate U Give. And in The Hate U Give, it was done on purpose. If you go back and read the book, usually the state that Starr is in is reflected in the state of her dad's roses. For me, that was an ode to Tupac, to The Rose that Grew from Concrete, but also the name Garden Heights. Garden Heights was an ode to that, in general, because I feel like Garden Heights is a concrete garden, and I see all of the young people that I write in that world as flowers growing in that concrete garden.
 
So I wanted to bring that theme back full circle and really hit on it, but also to show how Maverick got his love for gardening. In a lot of ways, Mr. Wyatt is the example of who Maverick will turn out to be. And I wanted to show Maverick doing something that's not as associated with Black boys as it probably should be, because more of them are into gardening than you think.

Black people have such a strong history of working with soil and working with the ground and the land. It's so deep in our DNA, but yet still we don't think about young Black boys out there enjoying gardening and growing roses. I wanted to show how Maverick came to love it and how it became therapeutic for him, but also hopefully the connection between this garden and Maverick and his journey, that he's definitely what would be described as a rose growing in concrete. He fits it to a T.

GR: The book describes the subtle, everyday hostilities the residents of Garden Heights face. For example, the high school is named after a slave owner. Maverick comments that “folks who go to County [hospital] rarely go home.” And when he goes to visit his father in prison, he notes that it feels like “we driving up to a plantation.” Can you talk about that?

AT: Oh, yes. That was absolutely, 1,000 percent intentional because these are things we're all discussing now. And I hope that, when readers pick up Concrete Rose, they realize this is not new. These are not inequalities that just happened. In 1998, this was the way it looked. In 1999, this was the way it looked. In a lot of these communities, the same schools now that are considered to be poor, as far as the quality of education that the teachers are able to provide due to lack of resources, that's not new. Those schools were like that probably 20 years ago, too.

And we’re having discussions now about prison reform and how prison is like modern-day slavery, but this is not new.

And then talking about health-care inequalities. That's coming up a lot now with the pandemic because who's affected the most by COVID? Poor people, Black people. And if you're Black and poor, you're essentially screwed. I can name at least five people that I know from my old neighborhood who died from COVID. And it's due to health-care inequality. These are all things that we've been dealing with in so many marginalized communities, but people are only now having the discussions on a wide scale. So it was intentional, every single one of those things, and I hope that they make people think and have even further discussions.

GR: Your first book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and this year has seen a surge in activism surrounding BLM in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. How are you feeling about the issue now compared with when you wrote The Hate U Give

AT: I'm feeling...it's hard to say positive, but I'm more optimistic now than I was when The Hate U Give came out because we are having the conversations now. We're having them on a bigger level. Black Lives Matter, those three words, are still so misunderstood by so many people, but it feels as if more people get it now. Black lives matter, too. That's essentially what's being said. But we have a systemic problem in this country where Black lives don't matter enough. Of course, you have those who still push back on it and people who still refuse to try to understand it, but again, the conversations are being had. And hopefully, the conversations will lead to true change.

I don't think you can find a person in this country now who hasn't discussed it at one point or another. And I'm not sure I could've said that a couple of years ago. You can try to look away from it, but at one point or another it's going to be put back in your face again. And that's the only way that true change is going to come about, if we are active with our pursuit of justice and we're actively speaking out and screaming for change.

GR: What do you hope your fans take away from Concrete Rose? What reactions have you got from readers so far?

AT: So far I've been getting a lot of readers who told me, "It's everything I wanted it to be and then some.” It exceeded their expectations, and I'm so happy to hear that.

I hope that, ultimately, though, they take away from this that there are Mavericks all around them. These are young men who are often written off, young men who we make judgments about before they ever open their mouths. And it's up to us to change the way we perceive them. It's up to us to not pull our purse closer when they step on the elevator with us or the subway. It's up to us, when they lose their life unjustly, if they lose their life unjustly at the hands of police brutality, it's up to us to stop villainizing them for their own deaths. And it's up to us to stop seeing them as thugs and maybe, just maybe, see them as roses growing all around us.

So I hope that they take away from it the beauty that lies in young Black men and the humanity that lies in young Black men. They're not things that go bump in the night mysteriously. They're humans. They have a full range of emotion. And the least we can do, as a society, is respect them as human beings.

GR: The Hate U Give became such an important book for so many young people. Despite being banned by some districts, it's been taught in schools across the country, across the world. Do you think this could happen with Concrete Rose, too?

AT: It's hard for me to say. I didn't expect that with The Hate U Give, so I'm not going to put expectations on this one and just let this baby do what it does when it gets out of the nest. I do expect there to be adults, whether it's educators or whatever, who are uncomfortable with this story being given to young people, even though it's their reality.

When you're talking about teen parenthood, you're also talking about teen sex. And these are conversations people don't always want to have, even though they're necessary. So I do expect there to be pushback, but I also expect that there are going to be teachers who pull it into their classroom and use it to have discussions.

But I think, for me, my biggest hope is that it finds its way into the hands of the real Mavericks, the young men out there who will see themselves in this character. And I hope that it provides a beautiful mirror so that they can see who they truly are and all that they can be, as cliché as that sounds.

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GR: Your second book, On the Come Up, is becoming a movie with Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu directing and you as a producer. Can you tell us about that?

AT: Yeah. I'm so excited. Paramount has been incredible. We have the same production team that brought The Hate U Give to life, plus me this time. And we have an amazing script written by Kay Oyegun, one of the head writers at This Is Us, the television show. So you know it's going to make you cry and make you laugh and all the things.

But Wanuri's vision is absolutely brilliant. I can't talk a whole lot about it, but for all of us as a team, our goal is for this young lady to get on the screen and not just use her voice, but make some noise with it because that's the whole thing behind the book.

I am absolutely ecstatic for readers to see what we bring to the screen. I know they have all these concerns already, but I'm like, "Trust me, it's going to be great." This is the adaptation that this book deserves.

GR: Tell us about the new book you're working on.

AT: It's a middle grade fantasy novel. We don't have a title just yet, but I'm really excited about it. It partially takes place here in Jackson, Mississippi, which will be my first time doing that, but the code name right now is #LiteralBlackGirlMagic. I can build my own fantasy world, and I get to use African American folklore and mythology in different ways. There's so many stories and superstitions in our culture that I'm so excited about using in this story. So it's been fun to build a fantasy world while the real world seems to be falling apart.

But it was important for me to do this. Originally, I was not planning to do that fantasy book until after another YA book. It was going to be a kind of heavy-handed YA book, but when the pandemic hit and then all of these killings and murders of Black people by the state, I found myself, like so many of us, just feeling despair. And I could not do another heavy book just yet. For my own mental health's sake, I wanted to do an escape. And I think that's something that my readers need right now, something young people need, an escape of some sort, a safe space. So through this fantasy world, that's exactly what I want to give them, and I'm so excited about celebrating Black culture and Blackness.

GR: Can you tell us about any books that you've read recently and loved or books that you're excited to read?

AT: One book that stands out for me is How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi. Fantastic novel. I also recently read Dear Justyce by Nic Stone. I've read that book several times, and Dear Justyce is a masterpiece. I feel as if it and Concrete Rose can be taught side by side in the classroom. I absolutely love it, and I'm not just saying that because I adore Nic. It's a phenomenal piece of work.

I also read the Tristan Strong books by Kwame Mbalia, especially as somebody who's going into middle grade now. Oh, and Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson. I absolutely adore Grown. I think about that book at least twice a week and think about the things that Tiffany put me through as a reader with that book. I highly recommend it.

GR: And who are your middle grade inspirations?

AT: Rick Riordan, for one. I love every single thing Rick does, and I don't think he gets enough credit for creating so many readers. The beautiful thing about his stories is you learn so much about Greek mythology and you don't realize you're being taught. Also Tracey Baptiste with The Jumbies books. I love her work.

Let’s see, who else have I been reading? The Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend. So yeah, I've been doing my homework. I don't want to step into it without knowing who's doing what. So I'm excited.

 

Angie Thomas’ Concrete Rose will be available in the U.S. on January 12. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Rebekah (new)

Rebekah Angie - you won't see this, but I just want you to know that you are an inspiration to us all. Your work is incredible and you have been given a beautiful gift for writing. It is amazing that you've touched so many lives with your words and used your voice to talk about the social and racial inequality in our world. thank you so so much!


message 2: by Erica (new)

Erica D`souza Angie speaks so beautifully and wisely about Black people, experiences and the world basically. I think the interview asked good questions and with Angie giving us fleshed out answers, this has got to get more reads!

I think there are quotes here that I can borrow and learn from, which is simply more awesome!


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