Angie Thomas’s love letter to Black boys everywhere
Angie Thomas hit the jackpot as a debut author.
In June of 2015, she tweeted a question about the appeal of a book that included “sensitive current issues.” That query led to the publication of The Hate U Give, her blockbuster young-adult novel that just marked its 200th week on the New York Times best-seller list.
The book follows Starr, a young Black girl who sees a police officer shoot her friend and has to decide whether to speak up about what she’s witnessed. The film version arrived in 2018.
The movie proved to be the seed of Concrete Rose, Thomas’ newest novel and one poised to be her next bestseller. It’s a prequel that traces a key few months in the life of 17-year-old Maverick, who eventually becomes Starr’s father. Actor Russell Hornsby, who played Maverick in the film, kept asking Thomas questions about his character, which eventually inspired Thomas to write the story.
Concrete Rose also is a love letter to Black boys, especially those who might otherwise be labeled criminals.
“I feel like a bad author-parent by saying this, but Maverick has always been my favorite,” Thomas writes in an author’s note that opens the book. “Maybe it’s because he’s the very thing that you have been led to believe doesn’t exist – an actively involved Black father who once checked every box on the ‘stereotypical young Black man list’ but overcame all of that.”
Indeed, as Concrete Rose begins, Maverick’s full of trouble. Like his imprisoned father, he’s part of the King Lords gang. And he’s just found out that a fling he had on hiatus from his girlfriend Lisa has resulted in a son, news that puts him and Lisa right back on hiatus.
But Maverick is much more than a gangbanger or baby daddy. Once he knows Seven is his, he ditches the drug selling. He gamely tackles parenting duties when Seven’s mother, exhausted after three months of mothering solo, leaves the infant with Maverick in a doctor’s waiting room minutes after a lab test confirms paternity.
Every parent who’s ever been overwhelmed in the early months of their child’s life (read: everyone) will recognize Maverick’s early struggles with Seven. I’d hazard that reading this book could almost count as sex ed for teens.
Fortunately for Maverick, he also has plenty of people who think and expect more of him than he does of himself. There’s Lisa, who dips in and out of his life despite their obvious bond. There’s also his mother, who insists that Maverick take responsibility for Seven, and Mr. Wyatt, the neighbor and store owner who gives Maverick both a job and plenty of fatherly tough love.
Thomas excels at making us care about Maverick, certainly, but just as important, we understand how where he comes from shapes his decisions. It’s a window into a teen learning what it means to be an adult in a world that doesn’t give him much runway.
“Maaaan, that first check? Pissed me all the way off,” Maverick ruminates three weeks into working for Mr. Wyatt. “After social security and some mess called FICA, I only had enough to help Ma with the water bill and buy diapers and formula.”
His mother doesn’t allow him to make excuses. “An accident is dropping a plate on the floor. Y’all were dumb,” she tells him when she hears he’s going to be a father. Mr. Wyatt keeps Maverick busy with plenty of extra labor in his backyard garden, making him work an extra hour for no pay when he’s 15 minutes late to his store job.
But Mr. Wyatt also helps Maverick admit he’s been stuffing his sadness over his cousin’s death.
“Mr. Wyatt don’t say anything for a real long time.
“He sighs. ‘Son, one of the biggest lies ever told is that Black men don’t feel emotions. Guess it’s easier to not see us as human when you think we’re heartless. Fact of the matter is, we feel things. Hurt, pain, sadness, all of it. We got a right to show those feelings as much as anybody else.’”
You don’t need to have read The Hate U Give to enjoy Concrete Rose, though it certainly adds a layer to the story to see Thomas’ familiar cast 17 years earlier. And you don’t need to start out with compassion, but you’ll have it by book’s end.
(Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, Jan. 12, 2021)