One of my high school English teachers wouldn’t let us read books in verse for our book reviews because they were “cheat” books. Being young, naïve, and well, impressionable, I allowed that to shape my thinking for a long time. Then I started working in a library (I feel like this is a phrase that introduces many paradigm shifts in life, but I digress).
I realized that verse novels are art. They call for so much restraint on the part ofthe author–expressing deep emotions and tackling heady social issues in relatively few words. However, this restraint serves as a refinement process: the end result packs a wallop.
With the amazing success of Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover (I hear you all cheering!), kids and teens might not realize that the teen verse novel goes back, past Ellen Hopkins and Glass to Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade.
One of the things that sets Bronx Masquerade apart is that it was written over 10 years ago, but it doesn’t feel like it. Often, teens will encounter brand names or models of cars or slang words that will be outdated in just a few years, but this book feels timeless. Grimes limits the narrative to emotions and actions. The characters name-drop Dr. Dre, but modern teens know him, if not as a rapper, then as “the Beats guy.” This story is a sort of literary chameleon in that it becomes what the reader needs it to become. Because of the large cast of real, flawed, intense characters, a reader will find someone they can relate to. Grimes is never preachy, and her poetry is fantastic. Each poem uniquely suits the student delivering it at the poetry slam (Open Mike Friday in the book).
I believed that these kids existed, you know? They weren’t caricatures. The most hard-hitting for me was Lupe, who felt unloved. To remedy this, she felt that the only way to discover unconditional love was to have a baby, and she envies a classmate who has a baby. Grimes then immediately goes into the classmate’s story, and you see the reality of being a teen mother. She loves her baby, but can’t finish her schoolwork because of late-night fevers or fussing.
The students (and, by proxy, the reader, since we too are attending this Open Mike Friday with the rest of the kids cutting class to go) find that poetry is an ideal medium to express their true feelings. They discover that their preconceived notions about each other are completely untrue, and even our jaded narrator, Tyrone, who generally has a cutting comment about something, begins to soften as the book closes.
This is a class act, 5 star book, no doubt.
Hand this to hip-hop fans, teens who love realism, and literally anyone else you possibly can. Do not say the word poetry: Bronx Masquerade has the flow to kill it on Open Mic Friday. It’ll speak for itself.