Guess what? Growing up isn't easy. And growing up in the Bronx doesn't necessarily soften the blow. Our cast of characters in Bronx Masquerade has experienced some real hardship, be it the death of a parent due to drug overdose or frustration with the media's portrayal of its community as filled with kids who are up to no good. There's violence and death and sadness in their lives, and these high school kids aren't afraid to tell it like it is. Take Tyrone's thoughts on school:
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! (3.1)
Importantly, though, this novel isn't all about the mean streets. There's some hope and change mixed in, too, and as the story progresses, Mr. Ward's students move away from narrow visions of what their lives might be and explore all kinds of other dreams and options. This is Tyrone talking about the future again:
The future is ours. Let us have it. That's what she's saying. That's what we're all saying. But I'm lucky. These days my moms ain't trying to push me in one direction or another. She's just glad I have one.
I read her this poem I wrote called "Dream" about doing hip-hop with my own band, and she started crying. My moms don't cry easy, so I felt bad. But she said they were happy tears. "You keep writing, baby," she said. "You're doing good." (74.2-3)
Someone's changed his tune, right? Life in the Bronx might not have changed much, but these kids have changed their outlook on life. And as this happens, the tone of the book shifts, too.
Sometimes genres are tricky to figure out; other times a book pretty much hits you over the head with its genre. Bronx Masquerade falls into the latter category. Written about teens and for teens, it fits super neatly into the young adult genre. Though we're guessing old adults will enjoy it too.
The title of this novel—Bronx Masquerade—comes from one of Devon's poems. His verse is all about how he looks and acts one way on the outside, but he feels a totally different way inside. When you think about it, that's a pretty good summary for every poem in the book: Each of Mr. Ward's students sees him or herself a little differently than other people do. It's like they're each wearing a mask for the outside world.
Up until now, Mr. Ward's students have all been putting on their little masquerades, wearing masks and disguises so no one can find them out. It's tough to keep hiding in the shadows when there are poems to read and write, though, and by the end of the book they're all well on their way to ditching their masks for good.
The school year is over, and all of Mr. Ward's students have spoken. So what's left to do? Well, there's always next year. See, Mai Tren is new to this school and he's having a tough time fitting in—until he hears the kids from Mr. Ward's class read their poems, that is:
I look around this class, with Black kids, Latinos, Jews, and Italians, and I wonder how I'm ever supposed to connect with any of them.
But then we had an assembly yesterday with all these kids reading poetry. They seemed to get along with each other, almost like a family. They said it was the poems that brought them together. It can't be that simple, can it?
Their teacher is supposed to be doing poetry again next year. Maybe I'll get his class. Who knows? I can think of worse things. (78.4-6)
Basically, this ending is all about hope for the future. Open Mike Fridays have been a success and Mr. Ward isn't going to stop them. Instead he's going to keep this love and tolerance train going for another year, helping another class of students connect with themselves and each other. Aw.
Bronx Masquerade takes place in—where else—the Bronx. And yes, we're talking about the borough in New York City. And no, it isn't a fancy part of town.
When it comes to the day-to-day lives of these students, they're pretty much the same as lots of average high school kids. They go to school, they hang out with their friends, they fight with their families, they listen to music, and they dream their dreams. In this way, this cast of characters is super relatable for pretty much any reader.
On the flip side, because these kids live in a poor part of a major city, their lives are a little different than a kid growing up, say, in the suburbs. Because the characters in this book grow up with the news media depicting them as thugs and thieves and in neighborhoods that aren't brimming with options and success stories, school seems pretty pointless to most of them. Well, until poetry comes along.
The American Library Association named Bronx Masquerade one of its 2003 "Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers," so you know this book is going to be pretty easy and breezy for anyone high school age and up (source). The story is short and the constantly changing voices keep it sharp and interesting. Poetry can sometimes be tough to understand for a novice, but the students in Mr. Ward's class keep their verses pretty light, even while digging into some pretty heavy-duty subject matter. In other words, you can tackle this book. We totally believe in you.
Nikki Grimes grew up in New York City, so she writes just like kids there talk. You might call it "urban" or "youthful" or "contemporary," but it definitely captures the way you'd image a bunch of modern kids from the Bronx talking to each other:
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. (1.3)
Super conversational, right? Tyrone could be chatting us up in the hallway in this passage. This sort of easy, conversational writing style anchors the book as it dives into poetry time and again. When it does, things become more abstract and free-flowing:
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. (2.1)
These verses may be written by student poets, but they really know how to turn a phrase, massage a metaphor, and show off some impressive rhymes. Because of this, the poems add an emotional and evocative layer to the book—they invite readers to really feel for the characters. Combined with the prose sections, they give us a pretty complete portrait of Mr. Ward's class.
It's no surprise that a book featuring almost thirty poems has a whole lot to say about poetry. In Bronx Masquerade, poems aren't just something Mr. Ward's students write down on paper; they represent the students coming out of their shells, shedding their masks and showing their true selves to themselves and their peers.
In the beginning, Wesley and Tyrone are pretty psyched to discover poetry because it sounds a whole lot like something they already enjoy—rap music:
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. (3.3)
As the story moves on, the interest in poetry goes deeper as all the kids in Mr. Ward's class discover the power of putting their words on paper. Janelle feels like a different person when she reads her poems; Porscha believes she can change people's minds about herself through poetry; and though Judianne denies the power of her words, her classmates know the truth. Time and again, we see poetry as a source of power in this book.
Why do poems have this effect on Mr. Ward's students? We're thinking it has to do with the openness of the form. While some poetry has formal rules, ultimately it's an open-ended writing style. Because of this, Mr. Ward's students can express themselves freely, focusing on what they want to say instead of being concerned with whether or not they're saying it the "right" way. As Porscha identifies, there's room for these kids to really share themselves in poetry:
The first time [Tyrone] got up there, I rolled my eyes like half the sisters in class, certain he was going to spout something lame or nasty about girls and sex, or gangsters. I mean, that's all we ever heard him talk about, right? But there was nothing lame about this poem, and none of it was about sex. It was about what's going on in the world, and about trying to make sense of it. It was a poem by somebody who really thinks about things, and that somebody turned out to be Tyrone. He made me change my mind about him that day. Maybe I can change people's minds about me too. It's worth a shot. (75.13)
In the end, all Mr. Ward's students learn that there's more to poetry than they ever thought before. And as they share their poems, they also realize there's more to their classmates than they'd previously recognized. In other words, poetry blows all the minds in this book.
We all know that newspapers and TV news can be super informative and helpful, but we also know the news can be over-the-top, reactionary, and a little bit silly sometimes. This is definitely how the kids in Mr. Ward's class see it.
Tyrone is probably the biggest critic of news programs. He, Steve, and Wesley do a free-style poem about the negative images that get shown on local news stations:
News at Five has got you thinking I was born to steal.
Blacks are menacing, they say, as if their talk's for real […]
I have seen the News at Five and here is what I find:
There ain't nothing good on teens, don't matter where you look.
Black or white, screen time is strictly for the teenage crook.
Hear them tell it, drugs and violence is our only song.
For myself, I think it's time that we all prove them wrong […]
Listen up, my peeps, because I've got the 411.
News at Five is infotainment. That's the game they run,
So forget about those gray heads with their slanted views.
Come tomorrow, we will be the ones to write the news. (62.1, 3, 5)
Tyrone is mostly concerned with the way kids from their neighborhood are portrayed. Black and Latino kids are made out to be drug dealers and criminals, and this affects the way people out in the world look at them. It's a huge bummer. Understandably, Tyrone isn't too excited about people seeing him as a thief or a junkie.
But even though Mr. Ward's students are concerned about negative images in the media, they are also super excited to be featured in an article in the newspaper:
Mr. Ward brought the paper to school and held it up for the class to see. "Look at this headline," he said. "'Student Poets Bloom in the Bronx.' That's you guys!"
I don't know who was prouder, us or Mr. Ward.
He brought a few extra copies of the paper for the class, and passed them around for anyone who hadn't seen it. I'd already bought my own, though. I had to, 'specially since they quoted what I said about how our poetry gives us a release, how it helps us relate to one another. They said our stuff was "energetic" and "rich in positive social messages." My moms will frame this puppy, for sure. (68.2-4)
Tyrone is especially psyched about the article. He knows that people only end up in the news for doing really notable things. He's used to seeing kids like him on for being juvenile delinquents, so he's glad to see a story about the awesome things he and his friends are doing. For once kids from his community are getting some positive coverage.
The news is a dominant source of information, and information is power. Tyrone and his friends are aware of how the world sees them, and while they can't control what's shown on the news, they can provide a positive example for the world. In their interactions with the newspaper reporter, they try to prove the world wrong, doing their part to change the negative narrative about kids in the Bronx. They're not a bunch of criminals—they're a bunch of thoughtful, open-minded, creative poets.
Mr. Ward's students don't start out too excited about school. Sure, some of them have dreams and passions, but that doesn't necessarily involve getting an education. Tyrone sums it up nicely:
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? (3.1)
Harsh, Tyrone, harsh.
This sense that school isn't relevant to the students' lives changes thanks to Mr. Ward and his encouragement to write poetry. Through poetry, the kids become engaged and start to realize the value of an education. Tyrone sees his time in English class as a path to his dreams of becoming a songwriter; Lupe decides that going to college is more important than having a baby; Janelle finally understands that her brains matter more than her looks; and Diondra opens up to her family about her dreams of going to art school.
School, for these kids, becomes a beacon of hope instead of something they have to drag themselves through everyday. It's not just another place they go to kill time anymore—doing well in their classes becomes a ticket to a better life. Yay.
Ever read a book with one narrator? How about two? That's child's play. In Bronx Masquerade, we're looking at nineteen different narrators. Whoa.
If this seems confusing, rest assured it is not. Basically, each of the eighteen students in Mr. Ward's class gets a chance to tell their own story and share a poem they read at Open Mike Friday. And then, at the very end, one future student gets to chime in, making it clear Open Mike Friday will be continued during the next school year.
One student gets more ink than the rest: Tyrone. He reacts to each of the poems read in class, leading us through the action and commenting on everything. His thoughts are the thread that connects all his friends' stories together.
The one guy who never gets his say? Mr. Ward. Though each of his students talk about him, Teach never gets to speak for himself. Maybe that's because this book just isn't about him. It's for the kids and about the kids, so they're the ones taking center stage. Good for you, guys.
Instead of writing an essay for Mr. Ward's section on the Harlem Renaissance, Wesley decides to pen a poem instead. When Mr. Ward has him share it with the whole class, Open Mike Fridays are born.
As students share their poems every Friday, they learn more about each other and come to recognize that though they may look different on the outside, they all have the same hopes, dreams, and fears on the inside. Empathy is magical.
Mr. Ward gets a real live poet—Pedro Pietri—to visit his class, and the kids get an article written about them in the newspaper. The reporter calls them an inspiration.
Tyrone and the other students in Mr. Ward's class start thinking about their lives after high school. These open mic sessions have given them hope for the future, the ability to dream, and an understanding of other people. English class is magical, yo.
Everyone reads their poems at an assembly in front of the entire school. Mr. Ward declares Open Mike Fridays such a success that he's decided to do it again next year. And he's going to add a slam poetry contest to the mix, too. Oh, we're so in.