Four years after publishing The Hate U Give, a Black Lives Matter-inspired novel that has spent 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Angie Thomas returns to her acclaimed fictional universe to explore the origins of Maverick Carter, the father of Starr Carter, THUG’s central character. Where THUG explored the impact of police violence and systemic racism on the Black community through the eyes of a Black girl who saw her friend gunned down by police, Concrete Rose delves into the importance of Black community through the lens of a Black boy on the cusp of adulthood, facing the prospect of leaving a neighborhood gang to give his child a better life. Thomas spoke with PW about her hopes for encouraging the humanization of Black boys, her first foray into middle grade fantasy, and how writing saved her sanity in 2020.

What compelled you to revisit the universe of The Hate U Give to tell Maverick Carter’s origin story?

Maverick has been one of my favorite characters from jump. I feel like a bad parent in saying that, but he’s definitely been my favorite. He’s the character my readers have seemed to ask about the most. I have kids come up to me at signings telling me they love Starr’s dad and then the moms come up behind them saying they want to marry him. They say it’s fascinating to see a character where we know about all these things he’s done in the past, but he’s such a great man and great father and a pillar of the community. They asked, how did he become that way? Then I started to ask myself those same questions.

I also have to give credit to the film adaptation and Russell Hornsby’s portrayal of Maverick Carter. He blew me away. The conversations I had with him on set about the character made me think even deeper about Maverick. Although I didn’t plan on doing this prequel, in the end it felt right.

In the introduction to Concrete Rose, you mentioned feeling deeply connected to Maverick. Why do you think that is? Have you ever felt this connected to a character before?

I’ve felt that connected to both Starr [from The Hate U Give] and Free [from On The Come Up]. With Maverick, the connection comes from the fact that he represents the men in my life. My father wasn’t in my life, but there were other men who stepped up to the plate and filled the hole along the way. He represents them in so many ways. Also, he’s proof that a guy like Maverick does exist when people want to pretend he’s a unicorn. We’re in a time where Black men still aren’t humanized by society. We’re still asking for the bare minimum for them to be seen as human beings and not things that go bump in the night. Maverick is a symbol of a young Black man who exists in the world and should be treated as a human being like anyone else. So multiple factors led to that connection.

What would you like readers to take away from reading Concrete Rose? Have any of the reactions you’ve seen so far surprised you?

I definitely want the real Mavericks out there to look at this character and hopefully walk away inspired. Specifically, the young men who make decisions that aren’t the best at times, who fall into certain situations, I hope they look at Maverick and they see themselves, and they see where there’s hope and potential and opportunity. I hope they recognize that there’s beauty within them, and that other people start to look at the real Mavericks around them a little differently. Even if these are the Black boys who have fallen into the gangs and who have fallen into selling drugs, I hope people start to think more about the whys instead of the whats. Why are they doing this? What’s their situation? Because unless we start fixing the why, things will continue. I hope people will read this book and humanize those boys, and see them as fully realized human beings and not threats. If Concrete Rose can help toward doing that, I consider it a success. What has surprised me is how many of my young readers are excited to read a book set in the ’90s.

Concrete Rose feels so firmly rooted in the ’90s; it was a great throwback. What do you remember best about that time period and do you have any plans to set books there in the future?

When I think of the ’90s, I think of the music of the ’90s. The music helped me with writing this book so much. Music, specifically hip-hop music, it works as an archive—you can find out about slang, you can find out about fashion. You can find out about all these different things just by listening to rappers from that era, so I really depended on that. What everybody was listening to back then, how were people dressing. I had to look at old pictures of Cash Money, and the Hot Boys and stuff. Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. I could find out about beepers, car phones, rims, all of that. That’s what I think about the most. I turned 11 in 1998. I didn’t have a beeper, so I had to depend on the music to get me back in the mindset.

Can you talk about what projects you have coming up?

There are two projects I’m working on, as far as books go. Blackout, with Dhonielle Clayton, Nicola Yoon, Tiffany D. Jackson, Ashley Woodfolk. We’re writing a love letter to Black kids. It comes out in the summer. Then, I’m working on my first fantasy novel, a middle grade. The code name is “Literal Black Girl Magic.” I’m excited because I get to not just create a Black girl as the hero of a fantasy novel, but I get to create this fantasy world and it’s so Black. So much Black folklore, so many characters from Black folk stories and stuff like that. Creating a magic system based on stuff that’s part of us already. I’m so excited about this.

There’s been this question circulating social media and I wanted to put it to you. If you could create a children’s book imprint, what would your imprint publish?

If I had my own imprint, it would definitely be for new Black voices in YA and middle grade because we need as many as we can get. It wouldn’t just have to be contemporary, as long as it’s kids’ lit, and Black voices for kids’ lit. It doesn’t have to be Issue books, just a wide range of Black voices for kids.

2020 has been a difficult year, in and out of publishing. What would you like to see change for the better in 2021?

As far as publishing goes, what I’d like to see change is: 1) Black kids in all different kinds of stories. I want to see Black kids in love. I want to see Black kids on road trips. I want to see Black girls bringing home the vampires to meet dad. I want to see all the stories. 2) I want to see publishing refrain from making it seem that there can only be one kind of Black character, or one kind of Black book. Let’s have the quiet Black books as well. It would be nice if in 2021 there were more books published about Black kids than about animals and trucks.

How have you protected your peace of mind in these hard times?

As far as what’s gotten me through 2020, it’s the hope that things will get better in 2021. It’s knowing that things are not okay right now, but at some point, they will be. Writing has helped me a whole lot. Escaping into the ’90s has helped me a lot. Writing about beepers instead of presidents on Twitter helped me so much. Also knowing that it feels like 2020 has stripped “normal” away from us and now it’s up to us to create a new normal. So I’ve been asking myself, “Why not?” Why not write a fantasy book? Why not write a middle grade book? Why not do something that people don’t normally see? There’s no such thing as normal now, so why not change normal? 2020 has done it already, so that’s what I’m doing from now on—changing my normal.

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas. HarperTeen/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Jan. 12 ISBN 978-0-06-284671-6