Books get written about kids like Starr Carter, the beloved heroine of Angie Thomas’s best-selling “The Hate U Give.” Too few of these characters have brown skin, but we are familiar with the story about the exceptional kid, the girl so imbued with goodness and greatness that we trust the wind at her back to guide her through the storm.
One imagines Starr has passed Bri Jackson, the messier star of Thomas’s second novel, ON THE COME UP (Balzer + Bray, 464 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up), in their shared fictional neighborhood of Garden Heights. But these girls wouldn’t run together. Sixteen-year-old Bri doesn’t go to private school. Her mother, a drug addict eight years clean, is months behind on their rent. Bri’s grades have slipped to C’s and D’s. “Nothing I do is enough,” she says, with tragic resignation. “I’m not enough. Except for when I’m too much for my teachers to handle and they send me to the principal’s office.” We grant white kids from comfortable ZIP codes the excuse of youth. But when a girl like Bri screws up, the cost is immediate and extreme.
And yet what Thomas declares on every page of this exuberant, exquisitely intimate novel is that Bri deserves a big story of her own. That this complicated teenager with fake Timberlands and a right to her anger is worth engaging with in her full complexity. The fact that someone like Bri is granted nearly 500 pages to find and use her voice feels like an event of political urgency. She matters and must be heard, says an author in complete command of her own voice.
[Read our Q & A with Angie Thomas about “On the Come Up”]
Bri may be written off as a threat or a nobody at her school for the arts. But in her neighborhood on a rough side of town, she’s the daughter of royalty. Her father was an up-and-coming rapper who fell on the sword of gang culture. Bri lives in his hulking shadow, scrawling rhymes in her notebook and finding comfort and wisdom in the art form that robbed her of her daddy. Nas’s “Illmatic” is as much a family member as her churchgoing grandparents or her drug-dealing aunt or her devoted older brother who chooses a minimum-wage job to support their mother over a shot at his master’s degree.
The hunger in these pages is real. Rap could literally turn the lights back on at Bri’s house. Her venal manager, a terrific villain with a gold vampiric grill, pushes her to play a hood role in her rapping that white record execs eat up like sugar. But Bri is a lover of craft, her raps steeped in as much social satire as battle swag: “Unarmed and dangerous / but America, you made us / only time we famous / is when we die and you blame us.” The shooting of Starr’s friend in “The Hate U Give” lingers like a ghost in these pages too, as each incomprehensible loss does in the heart of every mother of a black child.
And Thomas shows mothers such bighearted love in these pages. Throughout the book she bows down to “black momma speak” and the “superpower that black mommas possess — they can somehow go from being gentle to firm in a matter of seconds.” Thomas’s gift is writing for and about teenagers, but Bri’s mother, Jay, deserves her own novel.
For all the struggle in this book, Thomas rarely misses a step as a writer; only in the scenes of Bri’s budding romance does she perhaps seem uncertain over what feels like a narrative experiment. Despite the challenges that Bri faces, the novel is at heart a joyful love letter. To hip-hop, to family, to Popeye’s fried chicken and KFC biscuits, to Michael B. Jordan, to nerd culture, to Wakanda Forever, to any pop culture that holds up a mirror so kids like Bri can see themselves too. Thomas continues to hold up that mirror with grace and confidence. We are lucky to have her, and lucky to know a girl like Bri.