Book Review: Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
Updated: May 30, 2021
“Like to be reminded that beauty can come from much of nothing. To me that’s the whole point of flowers.”
― Angie Thomas, Concrete Rose
Hey ya'll! As we reach the tail end of Black History Month, I think that it's important for me to review a book by a black author. Now, I know that some of the obvious choices for this post would be the greats that we hear about in English Lit classes: Maya Angelou, Ralph Elison, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Christopher Paul Curtis, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and so on and so on. However, I'm in love with YA fiction. And, as I am a black woman, I wanted to choose someone more--dare I say--modern.
So, who to choose? Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi's African-inspired books always give me something to think about, so they would have been an excellent choice (plus, let's be real, anything with magic in it is my jam). And, of course, there's Ibi Zoboi, Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Kalynn Bayron, and a few others that I didn't mention or haven't found yet. My point is, there are several inspiring women (and more getting into publishing every day!) to choose from. But then I thought about this: Who has a book coming out between January and February 2021? And it hit me: Angie Thomas. So that's why we're here folks, for a review on Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas.
Let me start this review by saying...
Angie Thomas is one of my favorite YA authors. Her book The Hate U Give was one of the first YA fiction novels I read that featured a black protagonist that I could relate to. And then, when I read On The Come Up, I was reminded of my childhood dream to become a singer (don't worry, I won't quit my day job). So, when Concrete Rose was announced, I knew I had to pick up a copy of it as soon as I could. And let me tell ya'll! It was worth it!
I read it in, like, two days. That's how good this book was. But it's not enough for me to just tell you it was amazing. I have to explain it to you one-on-one. On that note, today's review will cover what the novel is about, the themes/motifs present in the book, what I liked, what I disliked or wished that the author would have done differently, why this book called to me, and how many stars (based on Goodreads's star count) I would give it and why. Let's jump in!
First things first, what's the novel about?
Concrete Rose is about 17-year-old Maverick Carter who wants nothing more than to take care of his family. But the only way he knows how to do this is by dealing drugs for one of Garden Heights' major gangs, The King Lords. Working for the King Lords pays well and, with the money from his current gig, his girlfriend Lisa by his side, and his cousin Dre looking out for him, Mav's life is pretty good.
But then Mav gets some surprising news: He's going to be a father. In order to take care of Seven, Mav's going to have to make some hard decisions. Finish school, or quit? Tell Lisa the truth, or lie? Sell drugs, or walk the straight and narrow? Get revenge, or choose peace? In the end, "[h]e'll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man".
What themes/motifs are present in the book?
The number of themes that I could have chosen from was surmountable. And, because I couldn't decide which themes to tackle in this review, I got some help narrowing it down from this nifty discussion guide that I found online. The three that I wish to discuss are the usage of roses, the usage of names, and how the book portrays microcosms and universalities.
Roses. There's a play on roses throughout Concrete Rose (I mean, it's even in the title and on the cover!), but I think my favorite little known fact is that the title and story were somewhat influenced by Tupac Shakur's poem "The Rose That Grew from Concrete". In the poem, Tupac discusses how resilient roses are and how they can thrive despite their environment. Angie Thomas capitalizes on this in the novel through the book's section titles.
Part 1 is titled Germination, and references Maverick's need to develop himself. On pages 102-03 Maverick asks Mr. Wyatt about his roses. After putting on some gloves, Mr. Wyatt says, "Roses, they're fascinating li'l things. Can handle more than folks think. I've had roes in full bloom during an ice storm. They could easily survive without any help. We want them to thrive." I feel like this is the first major conversation that discusses the connection between Mav and the roses. Because, like the roses, Mav CAN handle what he's given and then some; but, for him to thrive, he'll have to learn how to lean on people.
Part 2 is titled Growth, which is a play on Mav's growth as a person and his ability to handle new situations as they occur (for example, Lisa's pregnancy). While I can't recall an exact page where roses come into play, there is an amazing scene between Mr. Wyatt and Maverick about grief that takes place in Mr. Wyatt's garden.
Part 3 is titled Dormancy, letting the reader know that Mav will be stressed out or unable to move forward in his life. On pages 340-41, Mav and Mr. Wyatt talk about pruning the roses. Mr. Wyatt and Mav discuss that the canes on the roses need to be snipped because they won't help them grow. Mr. Wyatt continues with, "It's kinda like how we have to do with ourselves. Get rid of things that don't do us any good. If it won't help the rose grow, you've gotta let it go."
It's kinda like how we have to do with ourselves. Get rid of things that don't do us any good. If it won't help the rose grow, you've gotta let it go.
Last, the Epilogue is titled Bud--obviously, it's meant to allude to Mav's budding life, and the "bud" that Lisa is growing within her body. As a motif, roses work well in this novel about a 17-year-old who grows up in one of the harshest conditions possible: being a black male in America.
Names. Almost any person who has had (or, like me, plans to have) children know that names are everything. And, because this novel focuses on Mav becoming a father, it comes as no surprise that names play a role in this story. For those who haven't read The Hate U Give, pages 55-56 give us the first glimpse that Mav is obsessed with the number seven, and that he'll end up naming his child after that number. The conversation is about Mav's favorite rapper, Tupac. Without rewriting the whole conversation here, just know that there are a lot of seven's involved in Tupac's life from his birthday to the date and time of his shooting.
On pages 76-77, Maverick tells his mom that he wants to name his child Seven and, when she asks why, he explains that, "[S]even supposed to be holy and the number of perfection...I think I wanna make Maverick his middle name. Everybody say he look like me. Since that's the case, I want him to be the best version of me. The perfect Maverick Carter." And then, on page 148, he tells Iesha, "Seven is the number of perfection. He perfect, ain't he?" I like to imagine that Angie Thomas's goal in these scenes is meant to reflect on the importance of names in the black community. If you want a funny but serious explanation about this topic, I think this clip from Blackish sums it up pretty well.
Also, on the subject of names, it's mentioned on page 204 of Concrete Rose (and, I think, somewhere in The Hate U Give) that Maverick's name means "independent thinker". This short conversation between Mav and his father, Adonis (ironically, the name of the Greek god of beauty and desire), gives the reader an idea of how important names are to the men in the Carter family (and to the author). Last, at the end of the book, when Lisa and Mav are discussing the name of their little girl, Maverick asks Lisa what they want their daughter to be. Lisa tells him, "Intelligent. Independent. Outspoken....One of the few good things during all the bad stuff." Then he looks up at the sky, and, well, you know the rest (if you read The Hate U Give).
Microcosms and Universalities. According to Oxford Languages, a microcosm is "a community,
place or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger" and universality is "the quality of involving or being shared by all people or things in the world or in a particular group" or "the quality of being true in or appropriate for all situations".
Concrete Rose discusses both of these including, but not limited to, teenage pregnancy, community spirit, gang culture, the perception of black men, and earning a living. While I'm not going to touch on all of these, I will say that the setting of the book allowed Thomas to explore all of these aspects because they are intertwined and ingrained in our lives through our personal experiences and the media. Teenage pregnancy is an issue that everyone in America can understand--and it's not because of the 2009 show 16 and Pregnant. Instead, I believe that we can understand it because it's common to know someone who is, or who has, gone through it; and, in black homes specifically, there is sometimes the urge to shy away from the topic. Couple that with poorly funded schools whose goals are to teach abstinence as opposed to safe sex, and it's obvious why we have entire shows on the subject.
In middle school I remember hearing about Bloods and Crypts quite often and, I kind of feel like the King Lords and Garden Heights Disciples mirror these two gangs. As of now though, the closest things that I've seen related to gang culture are the books by Angie Thomas and Nic Stone, and the show All American. That's not to say that it doesn't exist or that it's gone away, just that it's not something that I'm an expert on. That said, gang culture is definitely a threat that exists in America and for some people of color, it's their life and, like Mav, they get into it because they need the money.
The point that I'm trying to make here is this: Even if you, personally, don't have experience with all the microcosms and universalities described in Concrete Rose, you've probably encountered some of them or you know someone who has.
Now that the heavy topics are out of the way, let's move on to the fun stuff!
What did you like?
I didn't just like this book, I LOVED it! The inclusion of characters from other books (the mom from Nic Stones' Dear Justyce, all The Hate U Give references--since this is a prequel--the nod to Bri's dad in On The Come Up, and the reference to Becky Albertalli's Simonverse), the complexity of the character relationships, and Mav's character development set this book apart from others. Put simply, my favorite things about the book all have to do with the characters.
[T]he crack is love. The love of his parents, his love for his family, his love for Lisa, the love Mr. Wyatt has for him, they all nurture him and allow him to grow.
Now, that isn't to say that I didn't like the plot because--come on--the plot was A-1. But this IS a character-driven story and it shows. I was curious about the main rose analogy while reading the book, but I think this interview with Buzzfeed's Shyla Watson explains it perfectly. Watson asked, "[I]f the rose is Mav and the concrete is made of hardship, responsibility, and expectation, what is the crack that eventually helps him grow?" Thomas responded that, "[T]he crack is love. The love of his parents, his love for his family, his love for Lisa, the love Mr. Wyatt has for him, they all nurture him and allow him to grow." And knowing this, makes me love it even more.
What, if anything, did you dislike or wish the author would've done differently?
The thing that I wished Angie Thomas had done with this book was give us more connections to roses. What I mean is that she missed an opportunity to show the growth of the roses in Mr. Wyatt's garden in tandem with Maverick's. I think adding this in would have given the book even more layers than it already has.
Also, and I know this is only because I read The Hate U Give, but I was hoping to get a glimpse of why Maverick went to jail for King. I thought that this would be included in the epilogue and I was kind of disappointed when it wasn't. Of course, that incident doesn't happen until Starr is about three (I think), but I still expected it to be there.
Other than those two things, I don't think that I would change anything in this book.
Why did this book call to you?
I mean, have you seen this trailer? Who could say no to purchasing a book after watching this trailer?
Okay, okay. In all honesty, this book called to me because I generally enjoyed The Hate U Give and On The Come Up, and I wanted to see where Angie Thomas would take a story like Mav's. I didn't grow up in a neighborhood like Garden Heights, but I didn't live in the rich part of my city either. I knew guys like Mav Carter--like, some of them are still on my social media feeds--and this book gave me a peek into their lives and how they got where they're at. Or, alternatively, where they could have gone.
In an interview with NPR, Angie Thomas said:
[W]hen I was doing "Concrete Rose" and I was jumping into it with this character of Maverick, I knew...[he was] going to be involved in things that people stereotypically associate with Black men. And [it was about] looking at the why - because that's how you connect people who may not even identify with Maverick. You may not live in a neighborhood where there are gangs, but you can understand wanting to be protected. You may not have a parent who's incarcerated, but you can understand wanting to help your family out financially. These are all human emotions. And as a writer, I am determined to focus on the human element and the whys and the explanations as to why so that my readers, no matter what walk of life they come from, they can find some way to connect with that...I really wanted my readers to pick this book up and recognize that Garden Heights is the neighborhood that they avoid or that they live in. Garden Heights is everywhere. It's reflective of so many of the communities within America and other parts of the world as well.
As someone with an anthropological background, and someone who also likes to understand the "why" of people and their actions, this resonated with me. I guess, in the end, I really enjoy reading about characters who reflect the microcosms that I'm a part of.
How many stars would you give this book and why?
If it wasn't for its relatability, I might have given this book four stars. However, because it resonated so deeply with me, I'm going to give it five stars based on the Goodreads scale. After all, I can see myself reading it over and over again; and, hopefully, I'll be able to share it with my future children.
TLDR: All of Angie Thomas' books slap and you should totally pick up Concrete Rose or, you know, all of her books.
If you liked this review, check out the one that I did on Elizabeth Acevedo's Clap When You Land. Otherwise, feel free to discuss the book and this review in the comment section!