On the NYT book list for Young Adult/Hard Cover, Angie Thomas reigns as queen. Her debut novel The Hate U Give has been at or near the top of the list for 103 weeks. It is currently number two. The number one spot is held by Angie Thomas’ follow up, On the Come Up. Thomas takes us back to the Garden Heights neighborhood but we see it from a different perspective this time. Brianna Jackson, known as Bri, is a teenager who lives immersed in the Garden. Her father was a famous rapper skyrocketing to fame when he was murdered. Her mother, a recovering drug addict, struggles to pay the bills while holding a job and going to school. And older brother Trey, despite doing all the right things, is stuck in a minimum wage job after graduating college. Bri has big dreams though. With the help of her Aunt Pooh, she plans to become a rapper, save her family and get out of the Garden.
Bri and her two best friends, Sonny and Malik, are students at Midtown School of the Arts. Sonny is an aspiring artist, Malik a filmmaker, and both are successful at Midtown. When the novel opens, all three are participating in an after-school ACT prep test. The thing is, while Malik and Sonny are outstanding students, much as Bri’s brother Trey was when he attended the school, Bri is so-so. Her grades are okay but her bigger problem is related to discipline. Bri is frequently targeted by teachers for her attitude and “aggression.” She is sent to the office for doing or saying things that, when white kids do, pass by unnoticed. Matters come to a head when the private security guards at the school target Bri for a search despite the fact that no alarms were set off as she entered school. The students of color at the school know that they are targeted for such searches disproportionately and silently seethe over it, but Bri won’t stand for it. She challenges the guards and what follows will have a ripple effect throughout the community and have a direct influence on Bri’s rapping career.
Thomas, as with The Hate U Give, puts the reader in the shoes of her female protagonist, telling the story of what happens through Bri’s eyes. In her, we see a funny, smart, talented young woman who is also hurting because of what her family is enduring and scared because of what she sees happening in Garden Heights. Bri mentions several times the murder of a young black man by the cops, a reference to The Hate U Give. When the security guards at school are going to be replaced by police, as has already happened in the public school, students like Bri are angry and upset, and some of them want to organize to protest. They feel that they are used by the school as part of its “diversity initiative” to get grant money but are not heard or treated equally.
Bri is not interested in the school protest or being its “poster child.” She understands that this would only put a spotlight on her and her past, her record, and she would become a punching bag for those who have already made up their minds about what kind of person she is based on her skin color and where she lives. Bri is totally focused on her rap career, and after her success in a rap battle in The Ring — the local club that features rappers on their way up — she gains notoriety in the Garden. She also gets the chance to make a recording, and when her original rap goes viral, things blow up in a bunch of different ways. Some of the attention she wins is positive. The rap is blistering and resonates with her peers, but it also offends some dangerous people in the Garden and, according to some of the people Bri cares about most, it presents a false image of Bri and who she is.
So one of the big questions/issues in this novel is what do you do to succeed? And what is success? When Bri looks at her mother and brother, she sees people who are trying to play by the rules and do everything the right way, but who never seem to make the progress they deserve. In the Garden, it’s people like her Aunt Pooh, a gang member and drug dealer, and the producer Supreme, who had worked with her father, who have cash and success. But at what price? Do you have to play a role, be someone you are not, feed into the assumptions and expectations of those with power in order to make it? Have you really succeeded if you have sold yourself out to make it big?
This novel, like The Hate U Give, forces the reader to think about the power systems at play in our daily lives (i.e., school, church, family, local police), and how power looks and feels different depending on the color of your skin and your sex. On the Come Up also shows us the importance of friendships and family and Bri’s typical teen struggle with those friends and family. There’s a love story in here, too, and kudos to Thomas for including gay/lesbian characters in this story.
On the Come Up is an excellent novel. Put it in the hands of teens and read it yourself. This is a perspective that was missing from the curriculum back in the ‘80s when I was in high school. Also, consider listening to it on Audible. I did not but might go back and do so because I want to hear how the raps are supposed to sound.