'Concrete Rose' Is Angie Thomas' Follow-Up To 'The Hate U Give'
NOEL KING, HOST:
A few years ago, the author Angie Thomas wrote a young adult novel that was perfectly of its time. It was called "The Hate U Give." A teenage girl, Starr, and her friend Khalil are driving home from a party. The police pull them over and accuse them of having drugs. And then while Starr's eyes are averted in fear, an officer shoots and kills Khalil, and Starr is left with the wreckage. It was a blockbuster of a book. It had this propulsive plot and characters who felt very real, like Starr's dad, Maverick. He wasn't distant or annoying or oppressive. He was really likable, and readers noticed it.
ANGIE THOMAS: My readers made it clear to me that I wasn't done with this character and this family because Maverick was the one they asked me about the most, which, you know, when you're writing a young adult novel, that's not really what you expect.
KING: So in her new book "Concrete Rose," Thomas goes back in time to tell Maverick's story.
THOMAS: For one, I knew that his father was incarcerated when he was 8 years old. I knew that his father was once in the same gang that Maverick later joined. He was actually the leader of it at one point. And I knew that he became a father to two children at a young age.
KING: Angie Thomas told me the big difference this time was writing from the perspective of a teenage boy.
THOMAS: I had to do a lot of work beforehand. And for me, that meant reading books by Black men about Black boys. So I read a lot of Jason Reynolds; I read a lot of Kwame Alexander - and then, too, reading books just by Black men like Ta-Nehisi Coates because I recognize that as a writer, I have a responsibility, and it's even greater when I'm writing a character unlike myself, when I'm writing outside of my identity. I have a responsibility to get it as close to right as possible, to be, if nothing else, respectful of the people who do identify with this character.
I really had to draw on experiences of young men that I know in writing Maverick and his story. And I had to think back to things that I witnessed growing up in my old neighborhood with some of the young men that I grew up around. I specifically thought of this one guy who lived around the corner from me. And at a young age - like, I think he was around 17 years old - he became a father to twins. And the mom lived on the other street around the corner from me. So to get to her, he would have to pass by my house. And I remember after those twins were born - he did not have a car. And I guess if their mom would call him asking for a break of some sort, he'd come get them. And he would ride by my house on his bike with one baby in one arm and the other in the basket on the bike.
KING: Oh, my gosh.
THOMAS: And looking back now, as an adult, I'm like, oh, my God, that was a...
KING: That's a lot.
THOMAS: ...Disaster waiting to happen, you know? But I thought of him a lot when I was writing this character. And I thought about the fact that this is not an image you see in the media, in books and films of young Black fathers. You hear so much that they don't exist, and it's not true.
KING: It sounds like you took precautions when you wrote the second book to make sure that you weren't taking your characters into the world of stereotype. Can you talk a bit more about what that process is like? Do you assume that your young adult readers are Black, that they're white? Who is reading the books?
THOMAS: You know, when I write, my main priority is to think about the young people who will pick my book up and see it as a mirror. They are always the ones for me. As a writer - as a Black woman writer specifically, I have to think about the Black kids who pick up my books first and foremost. Because - if for nothing else, one, publishing hasn't thought about them enough. We've seen that. The numbers show it. You know? Like, last year alone, there still were more books featuring animals and trucks as the main characters than Black kids.
THOMAS: So as someone who writes for them, I have to think of them first. I've given myself that responsibility. Now, if everybody else reads it and takes away something from it, great. But I feel as if the way I'm the most authentic with my writing is by focusing on them, is by giving them a mirror that's not distorted, giving them a mirror without smudges.
But I have to admit, you know, when I was doing "Concrete Rose" and I was jumping into it with this character of Maverick, I knew from the get-go, OK, he's doing things - he's going to be involved in things that people stereotypically associate with Black men. How do I fight against that? And for me, it was again about looking at the person, looking at the why - because that's how you connect people who may not even identify with Maverick. You may not live in a neighborhood where there are gangs, but you can understand wanting to be protected. You may not have a parent who's incarcerated, but you can understand wanting to help your family out financially. These are all human emotions. And as a writer, I am determined to focus on the human element and the whys and the explanations as to why so that my readers, no matter what walk of life they come from, they can find some way to connect with that.
KING: We've reached you in Mississippi, where you live, where you're from. When I first read "The Hate U Give," I was convinced the book was set in Los Angeles. I had lived in LA, and everything I read was LA, LA, LA. In my head, I was - and then in "Concrete Rose," it becomes clear with the mention of frost in the weather that it's not Los Angeles. And it made me really, really wonder, where are these books meant to be set? In your mind, where are they happening?
THOMAS: You know, I'm actually glad that you said that when you read "The Hate U Give," you thought it was set in LA because that means I accomplished my goal.
KING: Yeah. You...
THOMAS: I wanted it to feel as if this could be anywhere. I've been all over the world the past four years. And I've had readers tell me in New York, oh, this is - this feels so much to me like my neighborhood. Or I'm in Boston - this feels like my neighborhood there. Or I'm in Chicago - this feels like Chicago. This is Chicago, right? When I'm in Texas...
KING: It's not just me (laughter).
THOMAS: No, no. It's not just you. It's not just you. That was done on purpose. You know, with "Concrete Rose," I think I added a few more details that made it feel a certain way, maybe feel a little more Southern at times, too, because I'm a Southerner.
But I really wanted my readers to pick this book up and recognize that Garden Heights is the neighborhood that they avoid or that they live in. Garden Heights is everywhere. It's reflective of so many of the communities within America and other parts of the world as well. I was surprised when I went to the U.K., and I had British kids coming up to me telling me, you know, this reminds me of my neighborhood. And I'm like, oh, wow. You know? (Laughter). So it was done on purpose. I'm thankful that you thought that. I really am.
KING: Angie Thomas - the new book is "Concrete Rose."
Angie, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.
THOMAS: Thank you.
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