Angie Thomas’ searing YA novel The Hate U Give has spent 50 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list, a good chunk of that time in the No. 1 spot. It’s been long-listed for the National Book Award and adapted as an upcoming film starring Issa Rae and Regina Hall — and all this from a debut author. Now Thomas is preparing for her encore, and she’s shared some exclusive details with EW.
Thomas’ sophomore novel, On the Come Up, is due for publication early next year and represents the author’s homage to hip-hop. It’s set in the same universe as The Hate U Give (THUG for short) and centers on Bri, a 16-year-old aspiring rapper. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died right before he hit it big, Bri has massive shoes to fill. But when her mom unexpectedly loses her job, food banks and shut-off notices become as much a part of her life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it — she has to make it.
Expectations are understandably high for On the Come Up, but as Thomas tells EW, it was being able to drown out that noise and remember her roots that allowed her to tell this story in a way she felt proud of. Coming off THUG’s already iconic cover, standing out in bookstores across the country, Thomas has exclusively shared the jacket for On the Come Up. You can check it out below, along with our conversation about the book, in which Thomas discusses the inspiration behind it, the themes she’s exploring, and why she’s so in love with the cover (which has art by Anjola Coker).
Pre-order On the Come Up ahead of its February 2019 release here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your process like writing this book, after the huge success of The Hate U Give?
ANGIE THOMAS: I’ll be honest: At first, it was tough because there were all of these voices all of a sudden. It felt like all of these eyes were watching over my shoulder as I tried to write this next book. Getting all of the love and support for The Hate U Give, there are the unintentional comments that people make that do more damage than they realize — like, “Oh, I don’t know how you will ever follow this up!” You know? It can get to you. What helped me, my big aha moment as Oprah would probably call it, was I thought about why I wrote The Hate U Give. I wrote it because I wanted to write a book for me, first of all, and for those kids in my neighborhood who don’t see themselves much in books. I had to stop thinking about the reviews, the possible comments, and all of that, and I had to get back to my roots, so to speak, and say, “I’m going to write this book for me first, and for those kids.” Honestly I feel like On the Come Up is even more so a love letter to kids in neighborhoods like mine. Those kids that I get to meet when I go to schools, who say, “Thank you for THUG because it’s the first time I saw myself in a book.” Now I want to give them more books to see themselves in.
You tackle more issues here that hit close to home. How did you conceive of them for On the Come Up?
It was sitting down and thinking about what it was that brought me to write THUG. Starr’s story [from THUG] is a tragedy we see unfortunately too much, and it always makes headline news. But I had to think back to when I was a teenager, and I had to think about what was my big tragedy as a teenager. I never saw a friend get killed by a cop. My big tragedy as a teenager was when my mom lost her job. Kids like Bri, they don’t end up on the news like that. Kids like Bri, they become statistics and numbers. We hear numbers about poverty. We hear statistics about poverty. Then we see the stereotypes about poverty. Those kids are never seen as actual people. Their stories are never told. For me, I sat down and I said, “You know what, I want to write something about that big tragedy that happened in my life, because there are so many kids out there who are going through that same thing, and we don’t talk about that enough.”
Stylistically, did you approach this differently at all from The Hate U Give? Obviously there is that element of “can you follow this up?,” and I’m wondering if you wanted to expand what people think you can do?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I call this book my homage to hip-hop. Stylistically, it feels to me a bit grittier. It feels more hip-hop. There are raps throughout the book, and I think I can argue and say that hip-hop is poetry. So there’s that aspect of it too. It’s definitely a little different in that sense. With themes, they share some similar things. It’s set in the same neighborhood as The Hate U Give and there are overlapping things, but there are still different things. For me, the heart of the book is it’s about overcoming. That’s something that is shared with THUG. Where Starr is overcoming her fear, Bri is overcoming this whole thing of poverty. Theme-wise, there are similarities, and I think at the end of the day, what I still want to do is I want all of my books to reflect what I call those “roses and concrete,” based on that poem that Tupac had. [Laughs] These kids come from rough circumstances and situations, but have so much beauty about them.
How did you come to the title On the Come Up?
First of all, I’ve already had two fans go, “So what does those letters spell out?” [Laughs] Because The Hate U Give spelled out “thug.” This actually spells out nothing! The title — that phrase, “on the come up” — means a couple of different things. For me they all represent what I’m trying to do in the novel. We often say “on the come up” when we’re referring to someone who’s on the brink of making it big or changing their lives financially. We say, “You’re on the come up, you’re about to do something huge.” But also, the phrase “coming up,” I know in the South especially we use that to describe someone who’s growing up. We use that describe that phase of growing up. The character of Bri, she’s on the brink, or she’s trying to get on the brink, of changing her life financially. She’s trying to get on the brink of making it as a rapper, on the come up in that sense. But over the course of the novel, she’s also coming up and growing up as a person. For me, it’s also a coming-of-age story as much as it is a hip-hop story.
The Hate U Give cover is already so iconic. Walk me through the steps you took to get to the final cover for On the Come Up.
All along, we knew we wanted something where, beside The Hate U Give, they’d both make statements on their own, but they’re still tied into one another. You could look at that and say, “Yeah, this is another Angie book.” From the beginning, I was honest with my publisher. I said, “I really want to have a powerful stance for this young girl.” One thing that I love about The Hate U Give and Starr on the cover is that she makes you look at her. She demands your attention. I wanted that even more so with this cover. Hip-hop is so aggressive, at times. Hpip-hop demands you to pay attention to it, rappers demand that you look at them. You look at pictures of rappers, you Google their photo shoots, and every single one of them — they have power that comes off of them. I wanted Bri to have that same power about her. There’s something about her holding that microphone too, and holding her fist up, that says, “I’m here. You’re going to listen to me.”
And then having that black background, having her in that black background, for me even symbolically there’s something about it. In a lot of ways, she’s in a lot more darkness than Starr is. When you read the book, you’ll see she’s got a lot more darkness going on around her than Starr does. Despite that darkness, there’s this girl saying, “I’m here. You’re going to listen to me. I’m going to do something; you’ve just got to pay attention to it.” It all worked out perfectly for me. I love her look. I love that they gave her the braids. I love that they gave her the hoop earrings. I love that she’s got that L.L. Cool J-esque bucket hat. For me, it’s hip-hop without being over-the-top, and I absolutely love that.