When I first saw Young Adult author Angie Thomas at Waterstones, I cried. It was already an emotional evening as moments before my friend Danielle had secured an agent for her own YA debut, And The Stars Were Burning Brightly. By the end of the evening, Thomas’s passion and incredible story about Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes from TLC saw the entire room in tears.
Thomas’s first YA offering, The Hate U Give, is the story of 16-year-old Starr Carter who is drawn to activism after she witnesses the police shooting of a childhood friend, Khalid. It’s the kind of witty and emotive debut that sparks massive things and was so successful it was turned into a critically acclaimed movie of the same name.
On The Come Up is the much-anticipated follow-up and has some big boots to fill. Thomas creates another brilliant heroine in 16-year-old Brianne ‘Bri’ Jackson who is trying to lift her family out of poverty with her rapping talent. For Bri’s family, life is a struggle. Her rapper father was shot dead 12 years previously, caught up in a gang war, and although her mother Jay is eight years clean of drug addiction, everyone around her (including Bri’s condescending paternal grandmother) fear a relapse. Despite witnessing the devastation caused by drugs, Bri’s Aunty Pooh remains a gang member and drug dealer. The family often choose between food, gas or electricity and Bri’s academically-gifted brother, Trey, can only secure a job at a pizza restaurant.
Bri is talented, passionate and considered rap royalty. Often referred to as ‘princess’, she struggles with learning how to become an authentic artist and emerge from the shadow of her father’s legacy. After an incident at her principally white school, Bri creates a rap in response and to challenge the ‘hoodlum’ stereotype enforced on her (“You think I’m a thug? Well, I claim it”) only for the public to take her words and twist them into a threat. She gains notoriety as “an angry black girl from the projects”, something that her father’s old manager, Supreme, reckons could make her a star – and earn her family some serious cash.
Several parallels can be drawn between Thomas’s two books. Both are set in Garden Heights and explore the prejudices, double standards and everyday racism experienced by each character, and are written in Thomas’s clever, exuberant and extremely funny style. Events from The Hate U Give resonate throughout her second novel and references are often made to boy who was killed, but On The Come Up is a standalone story with the plot focusing on Bri’s rise and her realisation of the consequences of fame.
The book doesn’t shy away from the reality of Bri’s experience. While it should be shocking when 10-year-old Jojo professes his excitement at becoming a gang member, it seems disturbingly inevitable. On the Come Up tackles issues such as homophobia, gang violence and the fight to escape negative stereotypes. It also begs the question: who benefits from these stereotypes and why can’t people see through them?
But the novel isn’t all doom and gloom. Ultimately, it’s a joyous, funny exploration of what it means to be a teenager and figure out who you are. Bri navigates first love, family life, fear and friendship in a community that is too often treated with hostility and judgement.
I read the book in three days and laughed and cried along with Bri. She’s flawed, just like all of us, and often acts without thinking about the consequences, but she’s whip-smart, talented and wonderfully funny. I urge everyone to pick up a copy of On The Come Up (and The Hate U Give).
If you reckon YA fiction is just for kids, think again. This is a hard-hitting, relevant, powerful and important novel.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
On The Come Up is published by Walker Books YA and available to buy now.