These books share a lot of similarities and both were fantastic, so I’m reviewing them together. Both are about teenagers dealing with racial identity, religion, friendship, and family. Both are gifted poets struggling to express themselves. Both love their families but find themselves hiding more and more of themselves.
On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’ second novel, after the excellent The Hate U Give. The book is about Bri, the teenage daughter of a famous rapper who was shot when she was young. Though her mother wants her to concentrate on school, rap is all Bri wants to do. At the beginning of the novel she finds out she’s gotten into a big rap competition. This sets off a chain of events that has Bri thinking about the nature of rap and violence and how to be successful but still be true to yourself.
Like most YA, some of the lessons here are obvious – but as with The Hate U Give, what I love about Thomas is she doesn’t shy away from tough issues and she doesn’t oversimplify them. Bri faces very real dilemmas in terms of her academic success, her dreams, her safety, and the stability of her family.
I knew it was a daily fight for her to stay clean. I just didn’t realize I was the reason she fights.
Sophomore efforts are always tough, so I tried to keep my expectations low with this one. Plus, The Hate U Give was such a powerful book about an important subject. Happily, I loved On the Come Up – there’s something very real and very engaging about the way Thomas writes, even though I’m neither black nor a teenager, and I know little about rap. I liked everything about this book.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is about Xiomara, a teen from a Dominican family living in the Bronx. Xio loves to write poetry and much of this book is told in verse through her journal. Xio wants to join a poetry club at school and even perform in poetry slams, but she’s required to be at confirmation classes instead by her oppressive mother. Xio is exploring a forbidden first love and her troubled relationship with Catholicism. She also has a twin brother she loves, but worries they are growing apart.
The writing in this book is beautiful. It’s not always easy to read a story written in verse, but once I got into it I couldn’t put it down. It’s heartbreaking at times and always moving.
I identified with these characters quite a bit, since I also kept a journal and wrote poetry as a teen and as an adult. At times I felt writing was the only thing keeping me together.
“We’re different, this poet and I. In looks, in body,
in background. But I don’t feel so different
when I listen to her. I feel heard.”
Both of these books explore very difficult issues facing teenagers, including racial and cultural identity. But you won’t need to be a teenager to read them – I felt both were written at a very adult level. These are two of my favorite books of the year.