The New England Independent Booksellers Association kicked off its virtual fall conference on Monday morning with a keynote featuring two YA authors, Angie Thomas (Concrete Rose, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Jan. 12, 2021) and Justin A. Reynolds (Early Departures, HarperCollins/Tegen, Sept. 22) in conversation. While there were plenty of laughs as the two swapped stories about the writing process, the discussion turned introspective—even existential—and it became clear that there are commonalities between Thomas’s contemporary tale of a Black teenager resisting being pulled into a life of crime and Reynolds’s speculative fiction about two time-traveling best friends. Most notably, the two authors are committed to literary representations of Black males that defy common stereotypes in order to empower young readers confronting a society seemingly intent upon reinforcing negative stereotypes.

There were 225 booksellers registered for the hour-long Zoom session, which began with both Thomas and Reynolds emphasizing the important role that booksellers play in young people’s lives. “Independent booksellers are some of the most crucial gatekeepers when it comes to kids' lit: you bring in the books, you put them on the shelf, you talk to that reluctant reader who comes into the store. Thanks for everything you do,” Thomas said. Reynolds added: “When you walk into an independent bookstore, it’s part of the community. It’s especially curated, so they’re thinking about what’s happening, in the world, not just locally but globally. They’re thinking about what can impact their local community. We need that now more than ever. We’re truly seeing the impact of indie bookstores with all that’s going on in the world, and the power that a book can bring a person even under duress.”

In response to Reynolds’s question, Thomas disclosed that the film adaptation of of her debut 2017 novel, The Hate U Give, inspired her to write Concrete Rose, which is a prequel to The Hate U Give. The novel is a coming-of-age tale about Maverick, Hate protagonist Starr Carter’s father. Thomas explained that since the film’s release, fans have praised Maverick more than any other character, with younger fans telling her that he reminds them of their own fathers and older fans telling her that they are attracted to him.

“Whether you loved Maverick because you wanted to marry him or because you saw someone you knew in him, the question always was, how did he become the dad and the man that we see in The Hate U Give?" Thomas said. "This was a guy who once belonged to a gang, who once sold drugs. He did everything people stereotypically expect of Black men. But he came out on the other side—we see him as this loving, wonderful person, a father, a pillar in his community, a role model. How did he get there?” [pull_quote align=right]

While discussing Maverick’s character with Russell Hornsby, the actor who plays him in the movie, Thomas began developing a backstory in response to Hornsby’s questions—one that, at some point, she realized could be a novel in itself. “I did not plan to write a prequel,” she insisted. Without revealing any spoilers, she explained that younger versions of almost every Black character from The Hate U Give appear in some way in Concrete Rose.

“There are definitely some surprises, some shockers,” she added. “You know Maverick doesn’t die, but you don’t know what he’s done. I felt King is very much misunderstood. In Concrete Rose, you get a better understanding of him, who he is and why he has this hard exterior.”

Defying Racial, Gender Stereotypes

It was important to Thomas that she treat Maverick and other Black male characters in Concrete Rose with respect, she said, pointing out that Black men “are so disrespected in this country in so many ways; people make so many assumptions about them even before they open their mouths.” She wanted to portray Maverick as “perfectly imperfect. It was important to me above all to humanize him because that’s the bare minimum we owe young Black boys. As a writer, the least I could do is to have a fully three-dimensional figure on the page.”

With her new book, Thomas wants, she said, to inspire young Black readers to rethink their preconceptions of what it means to be a man: ”I wanted to speak to Black boys and tell them that it’s okay for you to cry. I know young men in my old neighborhood and how they define manhood. I wanted to challenge that. Manhood is not you wilding out, manhood is you taking care of yours and being responsible, and doing what you’re supposed to.”

Concrete Rose, she added, asks the question, “What does it mean to be a young Black male in a world that often tries to define you and tell you who you are, when you need to define yourself? That’s the basis of the book: coming to define manhood for yourself."

Creating three-dimensional and authentic characters while dispelling male stereotypes is also essential to Reynolds, who describes Early Departures as “contemporary fiction with speculative twists.” Weaving a tale about two boys who are best friends until an accident estranges them before another accident brings them back together through time travel “challenged me in ways that I haven’t been challenged before in my writing,” Reynolds noted, though he strove to balance “grief with levity” in telling the story. “Oftentimes those things are intertwined. Sometimes levity gives us permission to start the healing process.”

“It was intense writing but I also had a lot of fun,” he added, noting that the process of writing his debut novel, Opposite of Always, “was therapy for me.” Reynolds explained that a major inspiration for writing Early Departures was the realization that there are few books about Black boys who are close friends, who love one another in a non-sexual way.

“We’re so uncomfortable sometimes talking about love,” Reynolds said, “especially in a hyper-masculine environment or even in the world, where men are supposed to be strong and not vulnerable or show emotion. Showing love is one of the most vulnerable emotions that we can feel.”

Reynolds noted that, in his experience, men will typically express affection with their male friends by saying, “ ‘I love you, man,’ to make it feel lighter, or say it with such an inflection as to make it seem a joke.” He wants to give males, especially boys, “permission” to express their feelings to and about their male friends without embarrassment.

Outsized Impact of YA Literature

Reynolds explores grief in Early Departures with a subplot about one friend drowning and being brought back to life for short periods before dying again in the same way. “I want to look at the current world as it exists but I want to look at it through this lens. What if you could travel back in time? What if we could raise someone back? What would you say? How would it change the relationship? I am interested in that against a backdrop of the larger questions of: Why are we here on this planet? What is the purpose for us being here? For me, the most important part of being here on this Earth is to form meaningful personal relationships. That is what my work will always explore, first and foremost: relationships.”

When asked if she would return to Garden Heights, the setting for her previous novels, Thomas disclosed that she is “trying to do something different” with her next book: she is writing a middle grade fantasy novel. Disclosing that she was a Harry Potter fan in her youth, Thomas cited Rick Riordan as one of her favorite authors, praising “everything that man writes.”

In response to NEIBA director Beth Ineson’s question as to whether Thomas might some day write a novel for adult readers, Thomas said, “I won’t say no. I might. Any kind of book that an adult is supposed to read is out there. It’s the young people who need me first, especially young Black kids. That’s who I want to focus on. Plus, adults just seem kind of boring, you know?”