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am I, really? Who do I want to be?† How
can I get people to accept the real me, once I know who the real me is? These
are all questions tackled in Nikki Grimes' novel Bronx Masquerade. It is a book about identity, at least the
on-going search for it by a group of teenage students. The setting is a high
school in the Bronx, which is made up of predominately African American and
Hispanic kids. The story is told from the perspectives of eighteen different
students in Mr. Ward's class.
all begins when a student in the class, Wesley, decides to write a poem instead
of an essay about the assigned topic, the Harlem Renaissance. This is the
beginning of "Open Mike Fridays."†
On "Open Mike Fridays" Mr. Ward invites his students to read
their poems aloud to the class.† As the
book progresses, more and more students begin to bring poems in to read. Each
chapter begins with a narrative by one of the students and ends with a poem
they have written. These mini autobiographies often contain information about
the student's family and the many problems they face as teenagers. Each
narrative seems to have the same central theme: the desire to be understood and
Grimes, the author of Bronx Masquerade,
has written numerous young adult novels, children's picture book stories, and
poetry books. But she considers herself first and foremost a poet.† The poems are a very important aspect to the
story.† Grimes does a beautiful job
weaving these poems into the book, so that they become another bridge to
understanding the characters.
example, one character that appears in the book several times is Devon. He is a
super basketball player, but his aspirations extend far beyond sports. He
struggles with the cool jock versus smart nerd dilemma.† In one of his poems he tries to come to
terms with the yin and yang of his identity.†
He writes, " I woke up this morning/ exhausted from hiding the me
of me/ so I stand here confiding/ there's more to Devon, than jump shot and
rim/ I'm more than tall and lengthy of limp./ I dare you to peep behind these
eyes/ discover the poet in tough guy disguise./ Don't call me Jump Shot./ My
name is Surprise."
book has eighteen different students. Without pencil and paper, it is virtually
impossible to keep track of so many characters. There is Gloria, the unwed
mother at the tender age of sixteen; Leslie, whose mother died of a drug
overdose; Diondra, the tallest girl in the school, fighting her father's desire
for her to become a basketball player; Raynard, the dyslexic musician;
Chankara, who is beaten by a boyfriend; and on the list goes. Of course, with
so many characters it is impossible to get to know any one of them very well.
Although perhaps the writer's point was to show many different kinds of
students so that teenage readers could identify with someone in the book.
reader comes away from Bronx Masquerade
with several nagging thoughts. First, would high school students really expose
their souls in a classroom full of their peers, even through the guise of a
poem? And, even with this extensive array of characters, are they all a bit too
stereotyped? Also, the absence of any profanity in the book from these high
school students does take away a bit of its authenticity. However, the book is
told from an interesting perspective and the poems are beautiful and
© 2003 Debbie Ripley
Ripley teaches Reading and Language Arts in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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