Rating + Review: On the Come Up

Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, sure was a writer’s dream. It was a hit with readers, garnering 275,000 Goodreads ratings (with an amazing 4.55 star average), and was even turned into a movie starring Amandla Stenberg. Like a lot of other people, I was looking forward to another novel by Thomas. With a voice that’s genuine and timely, her young adult fiction is finding traction with readers who are interested in reading diverse voices.

Goodreads Blurb:

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s 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.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.

On the Come Up is a standalone novel from the author of The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas. This book stars Bri Jackson, a high school junior who wants to become a rapper so she can help her family out financially. She lives with her mom and older brother, Trey, but they barely make ends meet. Sometimes they go without power or visit food drives to get groceries. Bri attends a nice school outside of her neighborhood, but feels targeted there by the security guards and teachers because she’s black. Bri plays on the idea of what everyone assumes about her and raps about what she’d really like to do to the security guards at her school. The song gains Bri some quick fame, and the reader goes along with Bri through the ups and downs of navigating life as a young black girl when your dreams can be dangerous.

Overall, I wanted to like this book more than I actually did (THUG is like a 4.25 stars and OTCU is a 3.8 stars, rounded up!). I struggled to get into this story at first. There was a lot of slang and vocabulary that I wasn’t familiar with and had to stop and think about. For instance, “I throw my snapback on, pulling the front down enough so it can cover my edges” or “She’s beside her Cutlass, getting it in. Milly Rocking, Disciple Walking, all of that, like she’s a one-woman Soul Train line.” It took me out of the story a bit, even though this language is also what helped make it authentic. And unlike THUG, I didn’t find the characters quite as endearing. They didn’t feel quite as fleshed out for me as Starr and her family did. Even the descriptions of people and places didn’t feel as well-done in this book, but perhaps I’m remembering THUG incorrectly. Bri makes rash decisions and doesn’t consider the consequences until later. She makes a lot of careless choices, so it was hard to be sympathetic towards her at times. Despite this, I was definitely rooting for Bri and her family. I wanted them to beat the odds and make it – while also recognizing that many of their difficulties weren’t their fault but rather systematic racism.

On the Come Up is still an enjoyable read, even with a few criticisms. For instance, it was really cool to see Bri come up with her rhymes. She would hear a word or phrase and be reminded of other concepts or rhyming words and turn it into lyrics, or bars. I liked seeing this word play. I also really liked Bri’s mom, Jay, and a conversation she has with the school superintendent. Jay is a strong, smart woman. Even with flaws and a past, she brings a lot of wisdom to Bri’s life. If only Bri would listen! Guess that’s what happens when you’re a teenager, though.

While there is plenty to unpack with this book – racial profiling, inequality across housing and education, gang violence, hip hop culture, guns for white people vs. guns for POC, police brutality – the package is so neat and tidy that you don’t realize that’s what you’re reading about. Angie Thomas has definitely hit on something special and relevant with her first two books. She’s carving out a niche in contemporary YA using diverse perspectives that everyone can enjoy and learn from.

Recommended for:

  • Readers who enjoyed The Hate U Give (or moviegoers who enjoyed the same title)
  • High school English teachers looking for diverse perspectives to expose their students to
  • Readers who prefer to read fiction, but still want to learn about race in America
  • People who like hip hop music, spoken word poetry, and rap battles
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