Summary: Bri, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, wins her first rap battle, but that does not solve any of the problems at school or home.
On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’ second book, following the massive success of The Hate U Give. While it took me a little while to get into the book, I think On the Come Up is a better book. It works particularly well as an audiobook. The narration is well done, but the lyric sections of the songs and all of Bri’s internal rhyming makes the audiobook the more natural option for the book.
Bri is a 16-year-old. Her father was an up and coming rapper, who was killed when Bri was little. She remembers him more through the stories her family tells her than her personal memories. The tragedy of her father’s death was compounded by her mother’s depression that eventually led to a severe drug addiction. For years, Bri and her older brother lived with her grandparents, and her brother was her primary caregiver.
On the Come Up is a story of how hard work is not always enough. Bri’s mother kicked her drug habit, and after a long legal fight with her in-laws won custody of her children. She has worked hard as a preschool teacher while going to college part-time to be a social worker. Bri’s brother also did everything right. He graduated with honors from college, but the best job he can find in the area is at a pizza place. When Bri’s mother loses her job because of a lack of funding for the preschool, they move from struggling to desperate.
Compounding the problem, Bri is a student at an arts high school in Manhattan. The students from her neighborhood know they are there as diversity and they are also frequently harassed by school security and teachers. Near the start of the book, Bri is violently taken down and handcuffed by school security, which also cascades into several events throughout the book.
I know that some do not like the language of intersectionality, but On the Come Up is an excellent example of it. The intersection of poverty, racism, sexism, trauma, lack of access to jobs and community support, etc., mean that these become exponential problems, not just the addition of issues. While there is language, violence, or discussion of violence, some romance, this is still a young adult book. Bri is presented as a teen, a child not yet grown, who is trying to make her way in the world but does not have the maturity to deal with the issues she is forced to confront.
As a whole, On the Come Up was a more satisfying book to me than The Hate U Give, not because of the result of the story, but because of the cohesiveness of the relationships. These were real, albeit flawed, people. Children were not able to solve problems that adults were unable to solve as so many young adult books illustrate. And the reality of systemic and individualized discrimination is well presented, not as an excuse for bad decisions, but as an illustration that discrimination removes the access to options.