What’s new, readers? As a massive fan of The Hate U Give—both the young adult novel with which author Angie Thomas debuted in 2017 and the 2018 film adaptation driven by Amandla Stenberg’s propulsive performance as teenage lead Starr Carter—I was thrilled upon learning a few months ago that Thomas’ next novel would be a prequel to The Hate U Give called Concrete Rose (the title being an homage to Tupac Shakur’s poem, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”). Whereas The Hate U Give centered on Starr coping with the aftermath of witnessing a police officer fatally shoot her friend, Concrete Rose jumps back to 1998 and follows Starr’s loving father, 17-year-old Maverick “Li’l Don” Carter, as a junior member of the King Lords gang and the son of an OG of theirs who’s currently serving heavy prison time.
Taking place in Garden Heights—the Black neighborhood where the events of The Hate U Give and On The Come Up, Thomas’ second book, were set—the story sees Maverick initiating and recruiting new members of the King Lords and selling weed alongside his impetuous best friend King. The two of them, ranking as juniors dubbed “li’l homies,” are also collaborating on dealing hard drugs behind the backs of their gang leaders. While this is far from a hazard-free upbringing, Maverick actually feels quite safe in it, his father Adonis and several other family relatives having been taken on by the King Lords ahead of him. His overworked mother Faye has been led to believe he’s only a nominal member who’s able to stay out of gang proceedings, though he observes, “No mother want their son in a gang, but no mother want their son dead either. Pops made so many enemies in the streets that I need somebody to have my back.”
On top of all that, his life gets thrown for a loop when a DNA test confirms the one-nighter he had with King’s off-and-on girlfriend Iesha while briefly broken up with his own girlfriend (and Starr’s future mom) Lisa resulted in a baby. When Iesha dumps the baby into Maverick’s lap, he finds himself juggling the burdens and wonders of parenting with the dangers and perks of gang culture. A part of him very much wants to clean up his act, but there “ain’t no getting outta King Lords. Unless you wanna end up dead or damn near dead.”
When The Hate U Give first came out, Maverick was a surprisingly beloved character among readers, including me. He only became more popular when Russell Hornsby embodied him with a convincing and heartfelt turn in the film adaptation. So it was definitely the right move for Thomas to feature him at the forefront of her third novel. Like Starr and On The Come Up protagonist Brianna Jackson, the first-person, present-tense POV is conveyed through a combination of the streetwise authenticity of Maverick’s voice and the wry clarity of Thomas’s signature prose. However, Maverick wrestles with more flaws and obstacles than either Starr, who went to private school, or Bri, who aspired to be a rap star. While Starr and Bri confronted their own hardships as Black teenage girls, their middle-class lives contrast with the financial strains, gang violence, and teenage fatherhood of Maverick’s world. Even when he makes bad decisions, I’m always rooting for him and hoping he’ll do the right thing in the end because everything he does comes from a place of genuine love and empathy for his family, friends, and Garden Heights. The laugh-out-loud moments in his relatable journey as a first-time father to the baby he ends up naming Seven serve to lighten the mood while bolstering Thomas’s tone of compassion and verisimilitude.
The community of Garden Heights itself was a vividly constructed setting in Thomas’s prior books, and she fleshes it out on an even deeper level pre-THUG with tender reminiscences of hip-hop and the ‘90s. I love how she writes King, Lisa, Iesha, and other side characters whom we already met in The Hate U Give into the narrative with a subtle hand that makes me look at them from a fresh perspective. I won’t spoil who this is, but there’s a specific character who is introduced in the plot’s latter half in a way that, although minor, nevertheless breaks my heart. The relationship dynamics within the King Lords are depicted with equally as much emotional complexity and poignant honesty.
Concrete Rose reaches an especially high level of perception when it morphs into a nuanced examination of Black masculinity and fatherhood. A character explains at one point that “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 them feelings as much as anybody else.” Our society continues to cling to alpha male stereotypes—locking up your feelings, bossing everyone around, refusing to ask for help. Those values become challenged as Maverick tries to figure out how to “man up” as an adolescent boy, how to care for his new infant and his loved ones in an environment threatened by gang fights and indigence, and how to break away from the King Lords and go legit in a world that ruthlessly wields the tools of race and class to hinder such an admirable goal. Through Maverick’s richly textured coming-of-age narrative, Thomas emphasizes the importance of males of all ages being strong enough to make their own decisions and take command of their destiny while recognizing when they need to rely on the connections with their community to guide them past life’s tribulations.
As the eponymous flower bursting forth from the concrete of his life and yearning to be nurtured in the process of becoming a man, young Maverick Carter embarks on a stirring and hopeful personal journey that builds up to a gratifying payoff in the final paragraphs. All in all, Thomas has succeeded in nurturing the third member of her literary garden to fruition.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 94/100