52 pages 1 hour read

Nikki Grimes

Bronx Masquerade

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Bronx Masquerade is a young adult novel written by New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes. It was published in 2002. Bronx Masquerade chronicles an academic year in the lives of high school students in Mr. Ward’s English class. It includes the ways they relate to each other and their classwork, which prominently features Harlem Renaissance writers, as well as their hopes and dreams. The novel is written in both prose and poetry, with each chapter including a dramatic monologue—delivered as part of the class’s open mic activity—from a different character’s perspective. These poems address the students’ concerns regarding family dynamics, identity, romantic love, and the impact of the arts.

Nikki Grimes has written over 100 children’s and young adult fiction books. A native of New York City, Grimes is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, and advocate for the arts, education, and youth voices. Bronx Masquerade won the Coretta Scott King Award, which honors children’s books written by African American authors.

This guide refers to the Penguin e-book edition.

Content Warning: This guide discusses domestic violence, sexual assault, slavery, attempted robbery, bullying, child abuse, and death due to drug use.

Plot Summary

Bronx Masquerade takes place in a New York City high school. It follows students in Mr. Ward’s English class as they navigate internal and external challenges in an academic year, as well as their connections with each other.

Mr. Ward’s class is studying the Harlem Renaissance. He assigns an essay on the topic, but Wesley decides to write a poem instead. Mr. Ward has him read it to the class, and everyone responds positively; some of the students share that they’ve written poetry and would like to share it, too. As such, Mr. Ward introduces a new classroom format called Open Mike Fridays where students can share their poems. This format becomes popular with his students and the entire school; students from other classes sneak into Mr. Ward’s just to see and hear their peers’ poems. Each chapter is narrated by a different student and includes first-person prose and an accompanying poem. The main character, Tyrone Bittings, acts as an MC and offers commentary on the other students, their poems, and the novel’s events. His short chapters appear after each student’s chapter.

Wesley reads a poem first about being inspired by Langston Hughes. Tyrone follows with a poem establishing the students’ social context as inner-city teens, and he divulges that he dreams of becoming a rapper.

Many of the students’ poems focus on feeling like they have to hide who they really are. Characters like Diondra and Raul are passionate visual artists whose families don’t support their dreams. Throughout the book, they become more confident in their abilities and start to pursue their craft more seriously. Devon is an athlete, but more than basketball he loves reading and poetry. Eventually, he stands up for himself and reads openly, connecting with other students like Janelle, who is proud of being smart. Steve dreams of designing Broadway sets, but his parents want to leave the city, and they look down on his passion. Amy is hurt by her mother leaving and feels isolated from everyone; she is afraid of being hurt more deeply, so she hides herself away entirely.

Many of the female students’ chapters focus on gendered issues. Chankara shows up to school with a bruise on her face, and her chapter focuses on domestic violence—her poem makes Tyrone reflect on how his father beat his mother before he died. Lupe’s stepfather disrespects her mother and ignores her, and she considers having a baby, like her friend Gloria does, thinking it would be nice to have someone who loved her unconditionally. However, Gloria discusses the difficulties of being a teen mother in her chapter. Janelle and Judianne are insecure and feel that they aren’t beautiful. Most of these characters participate in Open Mike Fridays more than once, showing how their perspectives evolve and their confidence grows.

Another common thread in the students’ stories is social issues. The student body is largely Black and Puerto Rican, and characters like Tanisha meditate deeply on their experiences as people of color. Tanisha has lighter-skin than her peers, but she finds this fact unsettling because it’s the result of an enslaver raping her enslaved ancestor. Sharing this fact causes many of the students to reflect on their internalized anti-Black bias. Conversely, white students like Leslie and Sheila struggle to find their place in their school, though both find that being themselves is the easiest way to make friends. Porscha has lost her mother to drug use and is struggling with an anger problem, and Raynard is learning to accept his dyslexia diagnosis. Sterling is bullied for his faith, though he is confident in himself and turns the other cheek. He also tries to help his classmates live authentic lives.

In addition to Open Mike Fridays, Mr. Ward collects the students’ artwork and poems and displays their work on a wall in the classroom like an art gallery. As the students share their work during the year, they become more confident, overcoming insecurities, building friendships, and confronting their fears. After many Open Mike Fridays, the novel culminates in an all-school assembly where the students read their poems. It is well-received, and in the Epilogue, a new character appears. Mai Tren, a Black Vietnamese student, has felt out of place at school and is inspired by the students’ poetry. Seeing all the students in Mr. Ward’s class get along gives her hope about her place within the school and society, and she hopes to take his class next year.

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