Angie Thomas does not hesitate when I ask whether her new novel will be banned somewhere. “Absolutely, I’m expecting it,” she replies. “Adults don’t like talking about teenage sex, they don’t want to get uncomfortable.” She has good reason to think so: The Hate U Give, her bestselling debut, was pulled from schools in the city of Katy, Texas. “The initial objection focused on swearing and the discussion of sexual acts and drugs. In her new young adult novel, Concrete Rose, drugs and violence are more than discussed: the book follows 17-year-old Maverick Carter, a self-described “drug-dealing, gangbanging, high school flunkout … who got two kids by two different girls”.
Readers of The Hate U Give will recognise Maverick as Starr Carter’s father, and Concrete Rose – Thomas’s third novel – is effectively its prequel. Once again, the reader is transported to the fictional US city of Garden Heights and the pacey, highly readable story of “Mav”, whose world is turned upside down when he becomes a father. How can he escape the gang he’s affiliated with, when the only routes out are prison or death?
Zooming from her home office in Jackson, Mississippi, Thomas tells me it was her readers who made her think about returning to Maverick Carter. “When I toured for The Hate U Give, he was asked most about, and he had such a wide range of fans.” But it was speaking with the actor Russell Hornsby, who played Maverick in the film adaptation, that sparked the new storyline: “He asked me about Maverick’s parents. He knew his father was incarcerated but he said that for Maverick to be the type of father he is, somebody had to lay the foundations parenting-wise. It made me think deeper.”
In Concrete Rose, we meet those who raised Maverick – from his mother and cousin to Mr Wyatt, the local shop owner and harsh taskmaster who gives Mav a job. Fans of The Hate U Give will relish the echoes and nods to Starr’s story: both books contain a killing, both have narrators who live in the shadow of their fathers’ reputations, both are packed with pop culture references, and both feature Thomas’s signature attention to verbal habits and slang to create a vibrant cast of distinct characters (“I can be a bit temperish,” says one of the characters, P-Nut, to which Mav thinks: “Temper-what? I swear P-Nut be making up words to sound smart”). Both novels draw their titles from the rapper Tupac Shakur’s work (The Rose That Grew from Concrete is a collection of poetry written by him). And both deal with the grim reality of black children exposed to the horrors of life too young.
It is fitting that a book written in the isolation of lockdown explores the value of community, but for Thomas it made research trickier. Unable to meet anyone in real life, she turned to music and television from the time. The story is set around 1999, “so it’s considered historical fiction, which hurts,” she laughs (“I have kids messaging me like: ‘What’s a beeper?’”). “It was fun to go back in time, especially in 2020, a year that we all wanted to escape.”
Despite the connections between her works, Concrete Rose is a departure for Thomas. It is her first novel to have a male narrator and could be described as a portrayal of black working-class, boyhood to manhood. Thomas is unflinching about the numerous hurdles young black men face. Mav is struggling with his education at a school named after a slave owner in a neighbourhood where poverty is rife, and burdened by an expectation to “be a man”. In a touching scene, Mav is advised by Mr Wyatt: “Son one of the biggest lies ever told is that black men don’t feel emotions … We got a right to show them feelings as much as anybody else,” he says.)
“When I wrote [this], I thought about the real-life Mavericks who are going to pick up this book, and how they’ll feel when they read it,” says Thomas. “I want to make sure that they walk away feeling hopeful and inspired and with more love for themselves. Whether the adults are comfortable with that or not I don’t care.”
I tell Thomas that my favourite moments in Concrete Rose were the sometimes comic but always tender scenes between Maverick and his newborn – sleepless nights, fumbling diaper-changes, getting teased at high school for looking “like a bum”. “I ended up following some Instagram pages that specifically show young black fathers,” says Thomas. “The tenderness you see, you feel it in your ovaries.”
Books are just one of Thomas’s media – The Hate U Give became a movie: the film adaptation of her second novel On the Come Up is currently in production and Concrete Rose is being considered for television. I’m curious about whether the extension of her work on to the screen influences what she writes. “The Maverick in [Concrete Rose] isn’t influenced by the one on screen, but his father, Adonis, is definitely influenced by Russell Hornsby,” she says.
Thomas is a producer on On the Come Up and is “learning more about budgets, music and sets … So it’s easy to think: ‘Do you really want to write this like that, what would that scene cost?’. I try not to let it get in the way. Putting a big chunk of time between writing and talking about film helps.”
Still, dealing with million-dollar budgets in relation to your own work must add a certain pressure. Does she feel that everything must be a smash hit? “With the second book I put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s easy to worry about everything in this industry. It helps having a therapist who reminds me that the only thing I can truly control is what goes on the page.”
Thomas’s position is all too common to young women and creatives of colour who make politicised work. Success pushes the artist on to a pedestal, where they become a de facto political leader. For Thomas, this must be especially true. She has consistently used her platform to highlight the lack of diversity in children’s literature, and the success of The Hate U Give – which spent more than 200 weeks on top of the New York Times bestseller list – demonstrated the scale of the opportunity, and how readers of all ethnicities wanted to read diverse books.
Would she describe herself as an activist? Or does suggesting an “agenda” diminish the artistry? “I’ve chosen my lane and it’s children’s books,” she says. “It’s recognising the power literature has for shaping leaders, and making sure all kids have books that reflect themselves. So, I’m fine with being called an activist. Though I wonder if I’m doing enough.”
Has she started to see the result of her activism in galvanising American youth? “I hope so. They say young people – the recently registered voters – came out in high numbers to vote for Biden. Maybe the kids who were 14 when they read The Hate U Give are 18-year-olds voting in their first presidential election. And maybe I had some kind of impact. That would be nice to know.”
What about publishing? In the US there’s been a boom in books featuring diverse characters. A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that more than 12% of children’s books starred African American characters in 2019, compared with 5% in 2012 (in the UK, 5% of children’s books have black, Asian or minority ethnic protagonists, up from 1% in 2017). “Things have improved but we have a ways to go,” says Thomas. She refers to a 2018 US study that showed there were “still more books featuring animals and trucks as the main characters than black kids” and questions the types of stories being told. “Authors of colour shouldn’t be expected to only write stories of struggle,” she says. “It’s nice to see more marginalised authors getting published. I’m hopeful.”
Hopeful is a word that describes her work well. Would she call herself an optimist? “I am! I try and write hope into my books. But I also want to be real. I know shit sucks. But … there are some things that are stronger than the dark forces. Love and empathy are some of our strongest weapons.”
For her next book, she’s leaving Garden Heights. “I’m writing a fantasy novel for younger readers,” she says. “I grew up reading Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series, so I love those kinds of books. But I never saw people like me in them.”
“I want to see black kids on road trips and black girls bringing home a vampire like Edward from Twilight. It would be great to see black kids in these hero roles.”
“And hopefully,” she smiles. “It won’t get banned.”