Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade is deserving of the 2003 Coretta Scott King award and would be a welcome addition to classroom reading lists because it would foster understanding and self-expression while encouraging us to celebrate our differences. While it has been a long time since I was in junior and high school, I’m pretty sure school (which is not nearly as beautiful of a word as library) and my teachers conspired to make me hate reading. At least, that’s what I felt at the time, and still do to this day in many ways. Not only could I not identify with my teachers or parents or the books on our assigned reading lists, but I was really winging it when it came to being a teen. And being a teen was brutal at times: I was an incredibly intuitive person with so much to say yet I lacked the language proficiency to fully communicate my emotions and experiences with the people who guided me.
But that’s where art, poetry, and amazing teachers come into play.
When you’re not legally an adult, you rely on the adults in your life–parents and teachers, mainly–to help you through this thing called life. You rely on them to provide you a platform to share your story, and you hope they don’t drop the ball. And then there are the teachers–the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Hopefully you had the kind of teacher movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and School of Rock celebrate. In my experience, “good” teachers facilitate self-directed learning opportunities, foster curiosity, and help students identify and build upon their strengths. That’s a tall order, since much of the work good teachers do is an extension of what good parents do. In Bronx Masquerade, Mr. Ward is one of those teachers who deeply impacts his students in ways they can only begin to understand. He makes his entrance early on when he assigns a lesson about The Harlem Renaissance and other works by popular and lesser known African American authors. The classroom environment begins to take on a life of it’s own: students no longer shame their peers for wanting to read and feed their intellects. Eager to relate hip-hop and rap to the rhymes and rhythm of poetry, students begin writing and sharing original poetry. The act of writing and the resulting community they find in Mr. Ward’s class profoundly changes them.
In terms of format, Bronx Masquerade introduces you to a cast of characters, most of whom are Black and Latino with a White and Asian minority, whose lives intersect around poetry and Mr. Ward. Each subsequent chapter introduces you to a new character: Diondra, Amy, Art, Raul, Natalina, Porscha, Mai Tren, Wesley. Aside from Poetry itself, Tyrone is the central character around which all of the characters revolve. By the end of the book, Tyrone’s life has changed for the better, and “Open Mic Friday” is at the center of the positive change. As other students begin to read and perform their poetry, sometimes in the style of a poetry slam and often incorporating musical rhythms and beats, Tyrone’s guard begins to come down.And most notably, for the first time, he can envision a real future for himself and his peers, a future that seemed distant and dismal at the beginning of the book.
By the end of the book, it is clear that through poetry and community, Tyrone has developed a new understanding of himself and his peers. Most remarkably, the opportunity to create and share his writing under the wing of Mr. Ward has literally changed the course of his life that now includes a bright, beautiful future.