The Beautiful Complexities of Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas – Written by Nawal Qarooni Casiano
I inhaled Maverick’s story in just a few breaths, never wanting to leave his side amid the daily saga of his teenage life. I read at the park; I read in the car. As with all good storytelling, the characters feel like friends, and Maverick is one I won’t soon forget. Maverick shows up on every page with humanity and love.
Angie Thomas gifted us with Starr’s story in The Hate U Give, about a teenager who witnesses a policeman murdering her friend, navigates a wealthy white school, and becomes an activist in her own right. Now we are grateful she’s given us Starr’s father’s perspective in a prequel with all the complexity and texture young Maverick deserves. As Thomas said in a recent NPR interview, it was clear readers weren’t done with this family’s story. We were hungry for more, and I found myself fascinated by all the connections between the books’ intertwined plots. I especially appreciated the 90s references (TLC, CD collections and Discmans), and the depiction of a setting that transcends any single city in America. It truly could take place anywhere.
While both texts highlight systemic racism and rampant injustice, Concrete Rose is written from a Black male teenager’s perspective, entirely in Black English, allowing readers the experience of intimately knowing characters that are often dismissed by society. Tossing aside solely negative stereotypes and refusing to reduce Black males to labels, Maverick is a gorgeously layered character who readers root for, worry for, and love. Maverick wants to provide for his family. He wants to make his own decisions, not dictated by his father’s gang involvement. He wants justice for his loved ones. And he wants, at times, to be a carefree kid.
As a legacy in the gang, young Maverick grapples with the pressure to stay in and perform. He deals with loss- of a loved one, of his incarcerated father, of his childhood. He struggles to keep up with school while caring for his baby. He is hurt by the labels society places on him (“I swear, when grown folks know I got two kids, I see myself become trash in their eyes.” 272) and he is cognizant of power structures (“Keep my hands visible, don’t make no sudden moves, and only speak when they speak to me…I know the talk by heart. Ma and Pops drilled it into my head since I was seven.”289).
And, he is also a silly and smitten teenager trying to find his way in the world.
But Thomas doesn’t write to provide windows alone; she first and foremost writes for young Black people to feel seen. To further prepare for writing, she read authors like Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds so she could fully embody the Black male identity.
“I have a responsibility to get it as close to right as possible,” she said in the NPR interview. “…to be, if nothing else, respectful of the people who do identify with this character…when I write, my main priority is to think about the young people who will pick my book up and see it as a mirror.”
Many educators are taking on the task to expose students to a wide array of stories – for all people, in all walks of life. More than anything, we are responsible for providing context. No group of people are a monolith. No single story should represent an entire race or ethnicity. While Maverick by no means represents every Black experience, his story makes an important contribution to our understanding of Black lives in America.
Thomas explores the nuanced challenges Black males experience – from societal challenges to adultification. At the same time, she validates the Black and beautiful: cohesive familial relationships, wisdom from elders, deep-seated love, and self-determination. There is an ability for beauty to flourish in the face of challenge.
“Roll up your sleeves,” Mr. Wyatt, a neighborhood mentor, tells Maverick. “We’re planting roses today.”
Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an award-winning journalist and educator with experience in New York City and Chicago schools. Forever passionate about growing readers, writers and thinkers, Nawal was a classroom teacher, curriculum developer and literacy coach before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team design professional learning experiences in dozens of schools and education spaces. You can find her at the park with her four kids in Chicago’s Logan Square, at NQCLiteracy.com or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy.