When Wesley Boone writes a poem for his high school English class and reads it aloud, poetry-slam-style, he kicks off a revolution. Soon his classmates are clamoring to have weekly poetry sessions. One by one, eighteen students take on the risky challenge of self-revelation. Award-winning author Nikki Grimes captures the voices of eighteen teenagers through the poetry they share and the stories they tell, and exposes what lies beneath the skin, behind the eyes, beyond the masquerade.
When a high school teacher in the Bronx begins to host open-mike poetry in his classroom on Fridays, his students find a forum to express their identity issues and forge unexpected connections with one another. Grimes's (Jazmin's Notebook) creative, contemporary premise will hook teens, and the poems may even inspire readers to try a few of their own. The poetic forms range from lyrics penned by aspiring rapper Tyrone to the concrete poem of a budding Puerto Rican painter Raul (titled "Zorro" and formed as the letter "Z"). Ultimately, though, there may be too many characters for the audience to penetrate deeply. The students in Mr. Ward's English class experience everything from dyslexia and low self-esteem to teenage motherhood and physical abuse. The narrators trade off quickly, offering only a glimpse into their lives. Not even Tyrone, who breaks in after each student's poem to offer some commentary, comes fully to life. The students' poems, however, provide some lasting images (e.g., overweight Janelle, who is teased for her "thick casing," writes, "I am coconut,/ and the heart of me/ is sweeter/ than you know"). Any one of these students could likely dominate a novel of his or her own, they simply get too little time to hold the floor here. Ages 12-up.
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December 28, 2003
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Excerpt from Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
Wesley "Bad Boy" Boone
I ain't particular about doing homework, you understand. My teachers practically faint whenever I turn something in. Matter of fact, I probably got the longest list of excuses for missing homework of anyone alive. Except for my homey Tyrone. He tries to act like he's not even interested in school, like there's no point in studying hard, or dreaming about tomorrow, or bothering to graduate. He's got his reasons. I keep on him about going to school, though, saying I need the company. Besides, I tell him, if he drops out and gets a J.O.B., he won't have any time to work on his songs. That always gets to him. Tyrone might convince everybody else that he's all through with dreaming, but I know he wants to be a big hip-hop star. He's just afraid he won't live long enough to do it. Me, I hardly ever think about checking out. I'm more worried about figuring what I want to do if I live.
Anyway, I haven't had to drag Tyrone off to school lately, or make excuses for not having my homework done, because I've been doing it. It's the Harlem Renaissance stuff that's got us both going.
We spent a month reading poetry from the Harlem Renaissance in our English class. Then Mr. Ward--that's our teacher--asked us to write an essay about it. Make sense to you? Me neither. I mean, what's the point of studying poetry and then writing essays? So I wrote a bunch of poems instead. They weren't too shabby, considering I'd only done a few rap pieces before. My favorite was about Langston Hughes. How was I to know Teach would ask me to read it out loud? But I did. Knees knocking like a skeleton on Halloween, embarrassment bleaching my black cheeks red, eyes stapled to the page in front of me. But I did it, I read my poem.
Guess what. Nobody laughed. In fact, everybody thought it was cool. By the time I got back to my seat, other kids were shouting: "Mr. Ward, I got a poem too. Can I bring it in to read?"
Teach cocked his head to the side, like he was hearing something nobody else did. "How many people here have poems they'd like to read?" he asked. Three hands shot up. Mr. Ward rubbed his chin for a minute. "Okay," he said. "Bring them with you tomorrow."
After class Teach came over to my desk. "Great poem," said Mr. Ward. "But I still expect to see an essay from you. I'll give you another week." So much for creative expression.
Long Live Langston
by Wesley Boone
Trumpeter of Lenox and 7th
through Jesse B. Semple,
you simply celebrated
Blues and Be-bop
and being Black before
it was considered hip.
You dipped into
the muddy waters
of the Harlem River
and shouted "taste and see"
that we Black folk be good
at fanning hope
and stoking the fires
of dreams deferred.
You made sure
the world heard
about the beauty of
maple sugar children, and the
artfully tattooed backs of Black
sailors venturing out
to foreign places.
Your "Sweet Flypaper of Life"
led us past the Apollo and on
through 125th and all the other
Harlem streets you knew like
the black of your hand.
You were a pied-piper, brother man
with poetry as your flute.
It's my honor and pleasure to salute
You, a true Renaissance man
School ain't nothin' but a joke. My moms don't want to hear that, but if it weren't for Wesley and my other homeys, I wouldn't even be here, aiight? These white folk talking 'bout some future, telling me I need to be planning for some future--like I got one! And Raynard agreeing, like he's smart enough to know. From what I hear, that boy can't hardly read! Anyway, it's them white folk that get me with all this future mess. Like Steve, all hopped up about working on Broadway and telling me I should think about getting with it too. Asked me if I ever thought about writing plays. "Fool! What kinda question is that?" I said. He threw his hands up and backed off a few steps. "All I'm saying is, you're a walking drama, man. You got that down pat, so maybe you should think about putting it on paper." When that boy dyed his hair, I b'lieve some of that bleach must've seeped right into his brain. I grind my teeth and lower my voice. "Boy, get out my face," I tell him. He finally gets the message and splits. I'm ticked off that he even got me thinking about such nonsense as Broadway.
White folk! Who they think they kidding? They might as well go blow smoke up somebody else's you-know-what, 'cause a Black man's got no chance in this country. I be lucky if I make it to twenty-one with all these fools running round with AK-47s. Here I am one of the few kids I know whose daddy didn't skip out on him, and he didn't even make it to thirty. He was doing okay 'til he got blown away on a Saturday. Blam! Another statistic in a long line of drive-bys. Life is cold. Future? What I got is right now, right here, spending time with my homeys. Wish there was some future to talk about. I could use me some future.
I'm just about ready to sleep off the whole year when this teacher starts talking about poetry. And he rattles off a poem by some white guy named Dylan Thomas that sounds an awful lot like rap. Now I know me some rap, and I start to thinking I should show Mr. Ward what rap is really all about. So I tell him I've got a poem I'd like to read. "Bring it on Friday," he says. "As a matter of fact, from now on, I'll leave time for poetry readings at the end of every month. We'll call them Open Mike Fridays." Next thing I know, I'm digging my old rap poems out of my dresser drawer and bringing them to school. I'm thinking it can't hurt to share them, even if there's no chance I'll ever get to be a songwriter. After all, it's the one thing I could see myself doing if there really was a future. And I'm thinking that maybe there could be if I wanted it bad enough. And all of a sudden, I realize I do.
by Tyrone Bittings
We are all here
Leslie and Bad Boy, Lupe and Raul,
Here, here and here.
Dear Mr. Ward
with his wards and wardettes.
Let's have a show of hands today.
Is Porscha here? Is Diondra here?
Where oh where is Sheila?
It's me, Tyrone,
up here all alone
rapping into a microphone
'cause I've got something to say:
MTV is here, Mir and
morning space-walks are here,
Terrorism is here
lurking at the bus stop
can't hop on the subway
without thinkin' of Tokyo--
we all know poison gas
does not discriminate.
It's too late to worry
about my innocence
since fear is here.
Why is it a weekend visit
to your local Mickey D's
may be deadly?
Why hasn't somebody
Don't hold your breath waiting.
Still you can chill and celebrate
all that's great about life, like music
and the tick-tick-tick of time
which is equal parts yours and mine
to make of the world what we will.
But first, say no to coke, and smoke.
Say no to police brutality
and causing fatality.
Say no to race hate.
the power of love.
But most of all
take two poems
and call me
in the morning.
"All of the [students], black, Latino, white, male, and female, talk about the unease and alienation endemic to their ages, and they do it in fresh and appealing voices. Rich and complex."- Kirkus Reviews
"As always, Grimes gives young people exactly what they're looking for-real characters who show them they are not alone." - School Library Journal
"Readers will enjoy the lively, smart voices that talk bravely, about real issues and secret fears. A fantastic choice."-Booklist
When Nikki Grimes and I were at a NCTE poetry conference, one of the teachers asked if our author/editor relationship was of the love/hate variety. Nikki answered, "Definitely not hate. It's more like we're siblings." Nikki has always been a gifted author, but as we've worked together, I've seen her writing deepen and evolve. We began working together in 1996 on It's Raining Laughter, a collection of poems illustrated by Myles Pinkney's photographs. It quickly became clear that we each cared deeply that every book reach its fullest potential. And we both approached bookmaking as a give-and-take partnership in order to achieve that goal.
A year later, Nikki sent me the first forty pages of the novel that would become Jazmin's Notebook. Poetry and poetic prose blended seamlessly into a powerful and heartfelt novel. For months the fax machine became my best friend as additional pages were sent. I knew that Nikki had taken a giant leap with Jazmin, and I was thrilled when it received superb reviews and many awards, including a Coretta Scott King Honor. Another gift Jazmin gave Nikki was the courage to take on an even greater challenge--developing a rich chorus of eighteen distinctive voices in Bronx Masquerade. In her latest novel, Nikki uses her poetry/prose to reveal the teens' innermost feelings, allowing them to open up to themselves and one another. With her deft hand and wise heart, Nikki has developed a book of unique depth and scope. I am as proud as any sister can be.
Editor, Dial Books for Young Readers
An Interview with Nikki Grimes on Bronx Masquerade
Preview Magazine, Spring 2002
What do you have to have by you to write?
A pad, pen, Post-its and a good book in case I get writer's block and need a few pages of a good read to shake me out of it.
Where do you write?
All over the house. Have pen, will travel! I also take a pad with me on morning walks and jot down notes along the way. I've been known to compose whole poems that way.
What time of day do you get your best ideas?
Describe your writing uniform.
Active wear--whatever I threw on for my walk.
Whom do you share your writing with first?
My agent, my editor, or a friend. It depends on the particular project and how confident I feel about the work.
Do you read reviews of your own work?
Yes, though sometimes I wish I hadn't! Few reviewers do poetry justice. For instance, while my work is generally complex, it is also accessible. However, instead of noting that, reviewers typically refer to my work as "simple." Grrrrr!
What are you reading right now?
Paula, by Isabel Allende.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I don't remember a favorite book in my early years, but I do remember one of the books that made an impact on me when I was about twelve. It was Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, and it stuck with me because the protagonist had great integrity. That's something that I try to inject into my characters.
What was the first book you remember reading, or being read to you, as a child?
I don't remember.
What were you doing when you found out that your first book was accepted for publication?
I don't remember.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I first began writing, at age six.
What did you treat yourself to when you received your first advance check?
Dinner with a friend at a French restaurant. I ordered duck in orange sauce. Yum!
What's the best question a teen has ever asked you about your writing?
I don't know that this was the best question, but it's the best one I can remember.
How do you know when a book is finished?
When I'm making changes, rather than improvements.
Have any authors influenced you?
James Baldwin and Kahlil Gibran were early influences. Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing came later. Baldwin taught me the importance of integrity in your work and, along with others, demonstrated the power of mastering your tools, namely language. Each is a poet in his or her own way.
How did you decide to feature poetry so prominently in this book? What do you think it accomplishes that prose can't?
I wanted to explore the interior landscapes of a diverse group of characters, and I believed poetry to be the most effective way to get to the heart of those characters. In any case, poetry is the tool that works best for me.
It must be a challenge to write with so many "voices." What was the inspiration behind each character?
Some of the characters were inspired by high school poets I met on a visit to Centennial High School in California. Others were fictional whole-cloth.
Tyrone seems to emerge as the main character as the book progresses. Why do you keep returning to his point of view?
Tyrone acts as the Greek chorus in this piece. His voice helps to hold the work together. I chose him for this pivotal role because his story arc was the widest. He stood to gain the most from the poetry movement detailed in the book.
What do you like about writing for the Young Adult audience?
It's a last chance to impact the next generation to be sent out into the world. It's a challenge, a joy, and a great responsibility.
What do you hope young people take away from this book?
Several things. Be true to yourself; never judge a book by its cover; realize we are all complex individuals, more alike than we are different; and poetry is a powerful tool for self-expression, and self-exploration.
What is more challenging for you, poetry or prose? Why?
Prose, by far. I'm less sure of myself, unless writing nonfiction (essays, editorials, etc.). When I write poetry, I'm definitely operating within my comfort zone.
Why did you choose to set the book in the Bronx?
That's where I went to high school, William Howard Taft to be precise.