Tag Archives: poetry

Bronx Masquerade

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At the end of a month of studying Harlem Renaissance poetry, high school English teacher Mr. Ward assigns an essay to class to break down what they’ve learned. One student, Wesley, hands in poems instead, and Mr. Ward asks him to read aloud one of them. The students’ response to Wesley’s words lead to an open mike poetry reading every week in class, where all students are offered the chance to read their original work. Each student takes advantage of the opportunity to tell the world something personal about themselves and how they see their place in society.

Bronx Masquerade is a novel written in 18 different voices. The story follows a year in the life of a classroom of high school students in the Bronx as they learn to express themselves through poetry and learn to look beyond the facades that their classmates present to the world. Each student has a chapter which ends in their poem, and as the year of poetry progresses the students realize that although on the surface they are all so different – black, white, Latinx, male, female, teen mother, heavy, thin, bold, shy, beautiful, athletic, artistic – they all face similar challenges and experience similar feelings.

The themes of difference and community and future resonate throughout the novel and the poems. Each of these teens experiences individual versions of loneliness and isolation; each has feelings of not fitting in, or of standing out for unwanted reasons (whether it be Janelle’s weight or Devon’s basketball prowess or Judianne’s fashion or Chankara’s black eye or Porscha’s mom dying of an overdose). But as they sit and really listen to each other speak, they all begin to realize that they are part of a community, and have more in common than perhaps they first thought. That said, each poem and poet is unique.

In the beginning, thoughts of the future are hazy for most of the teens. Hope is a foreign concept.  Most have lost friends or family members to gun violence, while some have just left. But as the kids come together and see they are not alone, the future becomes something attainable. Dreams are ok.  Dreams might come true, with hard work and focus.  Hope is ok.

This isn’t a book with a strong plot or story line. With 18 different narrators, it takes a few chapters to get into the flow of the style and keep characters straight, and you aren’t getting a chance to follow one teen through a year of development and change.  What you do see, rather, is snapshots of the students’ lives and how they react to the changes and revelations of others.

Coretta Scott King Award winning author Nikki Grimes has written a novel that sends an important message to teens to not judge each other, to get to know people beyond preconceived ideas, and to always hang on to hope.  I loved this book, but read a lot of reviews from people (generally adults) who did not.  The main criticism seems to be the lack of continuity of a main character. And while I grant that it is a choppy style to read, the book does a fabulous job of showing what lies beneath the surface is not always what the observer expects to find.

Bronx Masquerade was published December 31st, 2001 by Speak.

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The Crossover

Unknown

At the top of the key, I’m

MOVING & GROOVING,

POPping and ROCKING

Why you BUMPING?

Why you LOCKING?

Man, take this THUMPING.

For the perfect way to introduce poetry to boys, or any young teen for that matter, pick up Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. He  has written an epic poem to basketball and brotherly love and heartbreak. I swept through this in one sitting, and am in awe of his style and prose.  It was visual and visceral and punched me right in the stomach.

Each chapter is written in different styles of verse, and the whole book reads like a rap song.

It is a basketball story, but is so much more than that:  friendship and family and courage and sportsmanship and academics and fairness and tears and more.

Josh and Jordan, Filthy and JB to their friends and family, are twin middle school basketball stars.  Their father was a star before them, playing in the NBA and Europe, before a knee injury ended his career. His memories of the glory days inspire and drive his boys to excel.

Alexander’s voice as Josh is amazing.  He is real and vulnerable, confused and angry, impulsive and resentful, and everything else that is a 13 year old boy.

Josh Bell
is my name.
But Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame
Folks call me that
’cause my game’s acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height’s tall.
See, I’m the next Kevin Durant,
LeBron, and Chris Paul.

Filthy and JB have always been two halves of the same whole, doing everything together their entire lives.  But now things are changing, JB is more interested in girls than basketball, and Filthy feels left behind. Add in family conflicts and frustration and helplessness, and Alexander has written a story that you will not be able to set down.

This book is perfect for middle school kids, and is an unintimidating introuction to poetry, grabbing the reader from the first page onward. The chapters are short, just scenes from the Josh’s daily life, and will speak to anyone, sports fan or not.

And the number of awards it has won or been nominated for?  The Newbery, for example.  The Coretta Scott King. So many more. And so worthy of them all. It is an incredibly powerful read.

Be prepared for tears.  They will happen at the most unexpected times. You will be floored.

The Crossover is published by by Harcourt Brace and Company