“Bronx Masquerade” by Nikki Grimes is a phenomenal book that teenagers will easily relate to. Even those of us who remember the angst of the teen years will be able to appreciate this book. “Bronx Masquerade” weaves together wonderful poetry and character portraits that make this read very unique and inspiring.
“Bronx Masquerade” is set in a sophomore English class in a Bronx high school. The story is told in the voices of the students in the class. Wesley “Bad Boy” Boone begins the story and introduces us to Mr. Ward’s class. He lets us know that Mr. Ward’s class had been studying the Harlem Renaissance and poetry. We learn that when he was assigned an essay, he wrote poems instead. When he was asked to read his poems aloud, other students wanted to stand up and read their poems as well, thus Mr. Ward’s Open Mike Friday’s began. Wesley also introduces us to his friend Tyrone, an aspiring young rapper who shows no interest in school. That is until Mr. Ward’s class started reading poetry. As the reader is introduced to the students and their poems, Tyrone begins reflecting on each of them and what they say in their poems. This makes Tyrone the pseudo narrator and overriding voice throughout the rest of the novel.
We begin meeting Mr. Ward’s class as each chapter introduces another student. The first four students we meet are Chankara, Raul, Diondra and Devon. Chankara was witness to how her sister’s boyfriend beat her and when a boyfriend slaps her, she swears it will never happen again. The poem she reads in English class talks about real love that doesn’t hurt. Tyrone reflects on how his father had beaten his mother before he cleaned up his act. That is before he was murdered in a drive by shooting.
Raul is a Latino boy who had dreams of being a great artist. Through many around him did not believe that he would ever make it as an artist, he has no doubts. Many scorn him because wanting to paint was simply not practical. Raul is grateful that Mr. Ward lets him draw and paint in the classroom before class starts. Raul wants to paint the Latino community not as bandits drinking beer all day but of his culture as it really is, filled with laughter and dancing. He wanted to paint his mother working hard to care for her family. Raul impresses Tyrone with his Z shaped poem and words about being true to who you are.
When we meet Diondra, we discover that she is also an artist who draws using charcoal. However, unlike Raul, she hides her talent. Only her friend Tanisha knew about her gift. We find that Diondra is burdened by her height because she is tall and has no interest in playing basketball like her father wants her to. She’s not even good at it. Her father is not a fan of her art but when Raul reads his poem in class, Diondra decides to draw a little more and maybe hang it up in Mr. Ward’s classroom. Diondra shyly reads her poem IF in Mr. Ward’s class. The poem weaves in phrases related to painting. Tyrone notices her fear when reading and helps her remain calm.
Devon is a tall boy that does play basketball but hides his intellect. Though he likes basketball well enough he would prefer to spend time in the library reading Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. He’s surprised when another student from Mr. Ward’s class, the plump but smart Janelle finds him in the library and silently gives him a book and leaves. He admires the fact that Janelle doesn’t pretend to be something she is not and decides it might be time for him to do the same.
When Devon reads his poem “Bronx Masquerade”, he impresses Tyrone with his words about hiding who he really is and being judged only by his outward appearance and not by who he really was.
What the students begin to find during these Open Mike Fridays is that they are more alike than they ever thought. The poetry slams cause them to grow and understand each other in unexpected ways.
As we learn about the rest of the students through their poetry, we learn a lot about what lies behind their “masquerade”. Lupe, who yearns to have a baby in order to feel loved, envies Gloria who already has a child. They each think the other is lucky. Leslie Lucas is a white girl uncomfortable in her new school but when she has a run in with Porscha Johnson, a tough girl in the school, they both discover they share a mutual sadness over the death of their mothers. Janelle wishes she were thinner while Judianne, the envy of most other girls because of her clothes, wishes she could disappear. Tanisha Scott can’t stand the attention she gets from being light skinned, and the Italian Sheila wants to change her name because she does not look as “ethnic” as her Italian family.
As the students continue to read their poetry throughout the year, Tyrone becomes more involved in school than he ever had before and ends up looking forward to Mr. Ward’s class more than anything. Tyrone and the rest of the students gain a better understanding of each other and grow close to each other, almost like family. They even begin to accept themselves. Tyrone even speaks about the poetry slam during an end of the year assembly and receives cheers from the rest of the class. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Mai Tren, a half black, half Vietnamese boy who can’t stand being judged by his slanted eyes and the assumption that he is good in math. He thinks about what it might be like if he got into Mr. Ward’s class the following year.
“Bronx Masquerade” is an amazing book that tackles the issue of identity, an issue that so many teens face. Because of the very brief references to violence and drugs, parents of young children might be cautious if getting this book but “Bronx Masquerade” is a gem for teenage readers.