There has been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere the last couple of years about the representation (or lack thereof) of people of color in literature for young readers. I haven’t done a full analysis but the good new is that as far as I can tell, in the small field of verse novels for young readers authors and characters of color seem to be comparatively better represented. I’ll do a more thorough look at this issue at the later date but for now I’d like to say few words about BRONX MASQUERADE by Nikki Grimes. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
When Wesley Boone writes a poem for his high school English class, some of his classmates clamor to read their poems aloud too. Soon they’re having weekly poetry sessions and, one by one, the eighteen students are opening up and taking on the risky challenge of self-revelation. There’s Lupe Alvarin, desperate to have a baby so she will feel loved. Raynard Patterson, hiding a secret behind his silence. Porscha Johnson, needing an outlet for her anger after her mother OD’s. Through the poetry they share and narratives in which they reveal their most intimate thoughts about themselves and one another, their words and lives show what lies beneath the skin, behind the eyes, beyond the masquerade.
BRONX MASQUERADE belongs to an interesting subset of verse novels for young readers wherein the verse element is rationalized by framing the story within the setting of a classroom unit on poetry. Sometimes this device works better than others – it can seems awkward and forced – but this book is one of the times wherein the setting is crucial to the overall premise. Because it’s not a traditional narrative with one protagonist and one plot, BRONX MASQUERADE is able to make use of the setting to create a kind of collage story. It is almost like a collection of short stories, each anchored by one personal poem.
There is a fair bit of prose in this book, as such it’s not a novel in verse in the same way that many are, but there is enough of a focus on verse to make this an important inclusion in any verse novel reading list. In addition, the verse elements, freed from having to carry the plot, are able to stretch more completely into a range of poetic devices and forms. The many characters, their individual struggles with their lives and their struggles to express themselves through poetry make this an immensely satisfying read. It would also be an excellent choice for a gentler introduction to verse novels, as well as a great book for reluctant readers, kids at risk, and of course kids of color who are looking for more diverse books.
Nikki Grimes has written a number of verse novels and is a recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award among other awards. I look forward to reading some more of her books in the near future.