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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
Dial, 2002 167p
ISBN 0-8037-2569-8 $16.99 Gr. 7-10

Young adults exist in an in-between kind of space: they are not completely adult yet they are often mature; they are aware of the world yet they don't always see themselves as part of it; they shield themselves within self-forged armor yet they are capable of risky compassion. Conveying this liminality can be a difficult literary challenge: sometimes a young adult protagonist's voice is too na´ve, too sheltered to be believable; sometimes the adult author's own voice takes over, and suddenly the adolescent voice is too informed, or too arch. Grimes' novel balances gracefully on the tightrope of young adult characterization, and the result is a class of student poets easy to believe and difficult to forget.

In Grimes' ambitious choir of character voices, members of a high-school English class write poems and read them aloud in Friday Open Mikes. Eighteen students-boys and girls, black and white, Latino and mixed-at a Bronx high school each talk about their lives in a brief chapter of prose and a relevant poem. They examine the public lives of others as well as their own private existences, often commenting on perceived public personae in the prose and then using the poems to hold the mirror up to truth. In poetic forms ranging from free verse to rap, the students expose their emotional throats: Chankara describes her feelings upon seeing the bruise her older sister's boyfriend has left on her cheek ("'I bruise easily'/ is one of the lies/ she sprinkles like sugar./ But I'm fifteen,/ not brainless. Besides,/ I knew the truth at ten"); Ramon witnesses his mother's unsung courage ("Mami's beauty is better than a movie star's. It survives a kind of life where pamper is a noun, not a verb").

The novel is not without flaws: Grimes tips her adult hand in an anachronistic reference to Richard Nixon in an improvised rap, and the resultant tolerance that develops among the classmates after a semester of self-revelatory poetry smacks a bit of wishful optimism. Generally, though, authenticity prevails. Grimes writes the poems of her young adult characters the way young adults would write them, each poem true to that hard-to-capture young adult voice, each poem striking just the right chord between self-restraint and raw emotion.

Some characters write to escape psychic pain: "at the center of loneliness/ we dip into a pool/ of tears/ and thrash around/ desperate not to drown" ("Common Ground"); "One day at Far Rockaway/ is all it took./ One look at rocks in water/ decided me:/ I want to be stone./ I want to be marble./ Dressed up in limestone/ never looked so good" ("Ode to Stone"). Other characters seek to escape limits imposed upon them by their bodies, their gender, their peers, as in the title poem by public jock/secret poet Devon Hope: "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 limb./ 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" ("Bronx Masquerade").

Grimes' novel is a surprise, too. Her character sketches, seemingly only loosely connected, accumulate to powerful emotional effect. In the end, the students' poetry and the prose reveals a community of young adults full of promise, whose voices, although individual and distinct, ultimately meld together in blended but discernible harmonies.

--Janice M. Del Negro, Contributing Editor

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Cover illustration by Christopher Myers from Bronx Masquerade © 2002. Used by permission of Dial Books.

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This page was last updated on March 1, 2002.