In Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade, Mr. Ward’s English class has been studying the Harlem Renaissance. He has assigned an essay, but an essay seems to be an inappropriate assignment to at least one of his students: Wesley “Bad Boy” Boone. Wesley would rather write a poem, thinking it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. Mr. Ward allows Wesley to write a poem and even to read it aloud in class. He must still write the essay, however. Wesley’s poem starts a trend, and soon his “homey” Tyrone brings in a poem of his own to read. Before long, other students in class want to read their poems, and Open Mike Friday is born.
The eighteen voices representing the students in Mr. Ward’s English class are quite diverse, including young men and women who are black, white, and Latino. They range from the quintessentially “cool” to the naturally “nerdy.” On the surface, the students seem very different; each wears a mask in order to portray the person they want the world to see. Beneath their masks, they share common feelings: fear, insecurity, the need for love, a lack of identity, and a struggle for recognition.
The students’ poems gradually pierce their masks, exposing their deeper identities to their classmates. The hotshot basketball player, seemingly confident and in control, is revealed as a secret bookworm who loves to learn. The meek, needy, overweight girl becomes a loving, giving, caring young woman her classmates had never before noticed.
Poetry has a transforming effect, and it becomes a positive force that reaches beyond the school and into the students’ extracurricular lives to affect their families and their community. Grimes’s novel alternates between poems written by the students and short character sketches of each student. In addition, Tyrone injects his own comments after every poem, reacting on behalf of the class.