Coretta Scott King Award
ALA Notable Book
Notable Books for a Global Society
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.Wesley “Bad Boy” Boone
I ain’t particular about doing homework, you understand. My teachers practically faint whenever I turn something in. Matter of fact, I probably got the longest list of excuses for missing homework of anyone alive. Except for my homey Tyrone. He tries to act like he’s not even interested in school, like there’s no point in studying hard, or dreaming about tomorrow, or bothering to graduate. He’s got his reasons. I keep on him about going to school, though, saying I need the company. Besides, I tell him, if he drops out and gets a J.O.B., he won’t have any time to work on his songs. That always gets to him. Tyrone might convince everybody else that he’s all through with dreaming, but I know he wants to be a big hip-hop star. He’s just afraid he won’t live long enough to do it. Me, I hardly ever think about checking out. I’m more worried about figuring what I want to do if I live.
Anyway, I haven’t had to drag Tyrone off to school lately, or make excuses for not having my homework done, because I’ve been doing it. It’s the Harlem Renaissance stuff that’s got us both going.
We spent a month reading poetry from the Harlem Renaissance in our English class. Then Mr. Ward—that’s our teacher—asked us to write an essay about it. Make sense to you? Me neither. I mean, what’s the point of studying poetry and then writing essays? So I wrote a bunch of poems instead. They weren’t too shabby, considering I’d only done a few rap pieces before. My favorite was about Langston Hughes. How was I to know Teach would ask me to read it out loud? But I did. Knees knocking like a skeleton on Halloween, embarrassment bleaching my black cheeks red, eyes stapled to the page in front of me. But I did it, I read my poem.
Guess what. Nobody laughed. In fact, everybody thought it was cool. By the time I got back to my seat, other kids were shouting: “Mr. Ward, I got a poem too. Can I bring it in to read?”
Teach cocked his head to the side, like he was hearing something nobody else did. “How many people here have poems they’d like to read?” he asked. Three hands shot up. Mr. Ward rubbed his chin for a minute. “Okay,” he said. “Bring them with you tomorrow.”
After class Teach came over to my desk. “Great poem,” said Mr. Ward. “But I still expect to see an essay from you. I’ll give you another week.” So much for creative expression.
Long Live Langston
School ain’t nothin’ but a joke.
My moms don’t want to hear that, but if it weren’t for Wesley and my other homeys, I wouldn’t even be here, aiight? These white folk talking ’bout some future, telling me I need to be planning for some future—like I got one! And Raynard agreeing, like he’s smart enough to know. From what I hear, that boy can’t hardly read! Anyway, it’s them white folk that get me with all this future mess. Like Steve, all hopped up about working on Broadway and telling me
I should think about getting with it too. Asked me if I ever thought about writing plays. “Fool! What kinda question is that?” I said. He threw his hands up and backed off a few steps. “All I’m saying is, you’re a walking drama, man. You got that down pat, so maybe you should think about putting it on paper.” When that boy dyed his hair, I b’lieve some of that bleach must’ve seeped right into his brain. I grind my teeth and lower my voice. “Boy, get out my face,” I tell him. He finally gets the message and splits. I’m ticked off that he even got me thinking about such nonsense as Broadway.
A year later, Nikki sent me the first forty pages of the novel that would become Jazmin’s Notebook. Poetry and poetic prose blended seamlessly into a powerful and heartfelt novel. For months the fax machine became my best friend as additional pages were sent. I knew that Nikki had taken a giant leap with Jazmin, and I was thrilled when it received superb reviews and many awards, including a Coretta Scott King Honor. Another gift Jazmin gave Nikki was the courage to take on an even greater challengedeveloping a rich chorus of eighteen distinctive voices in Bronx Masquerade. In her latest novel, Nikki uses her poetry/prose to reveal the teens’ innermost feelings, allowing them to open up to themselves and one another. With her deft hand and wise heart, Nikki has developed a book of unique depth and scope. I am as proud as any sister can be.
What do you have to have by you to write?
A pad, pen, Post-its and a good book in case I get writer’s block and need a few pages of a good read to shake me out of it.
Where do you write?
All over the house. Have pen, will travel! I also take a pad with me on morning walks and jot down notes along the way. I’ve been known to compose whole poems that way.
What time of day do you get your best ideas?
Describe your writing uniform.
Active wear—whatever I threw on for my walk.
Whom do you share your writing with first?
My agent, my editor, or a friend. It depends on the particular project and how confident I feel about the work.
Do you read reviews of your own work?
Yes, though sometimes I wish I hadn’t! Few reviewers do poetry justice. For instance, while my work is generally complex, it is also accessible. However, instead of noting that, reviewers typically refer to my work as "simple." Grrrrr!
What are you reading right now?
Paula, by Isabel Allende.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I don’t remember a favorite book in my early years, but I do remember one of the books that made an impact on me when I was about twelve. It was Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, and it stuck with me because the protagonist had great integrity. That’s something that I try to inject into my characters.
What was the first book you remember reading, or being read to you, as a child?
I don’t remember.
What were you doing when you found out that your first book was accepted for publication?
I don’t remember.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I first began writing, at age six.
What did you treat yourself to when you received your first advance check?
Dinner with a friend at a French restaurant. I ordered duck in orange sauce. Yum!
What's the best question a teen has ever asked you about your writing?
I don’t know that this was the best question, but it’s the best one I can remember.
How do you know when a book is finished?
When I’m making changes, rather than improvements.
Have any authors influenced you?
James Baldwin and Kahlil Gibran were early influences. Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing came later. Baldwin taught me the importance of integrity in your work and, along with others, demonstrated the power of mastering your tools, namely language. Each is a poet in his or her own way.
How did you decide to feature poetry so prominently in this book? What do you think it accomplishes that prose can't?
I wanted to explore the interior landscapes of a diverse group of characters, and I believed poetry to be the most effective way to get to the heart of those characters. In any case, poetry is the tool that works best for me.
It must be a challenge to write with so many "voices." What was the inspiration behind each character?
Some of the characters were inspired by high school poets I met on a visit to Centennial High School in California. Others were fictional whole-cloth.
Tyrone seems to emerge as the main character as the book progresses. Why do you keep returning to his point of view?
Tyrone acts as the Greek chorus in this piece. His voice helps to hold the work together. I chose him for this pivotal role because his story arc was the widest. He stood to gain the most from the poetry movement detailed in the book.
What do you like about writing for the Young Adult audience?
It’s a last chance to impact the next generation to be sent out into the world. It’s a challenge, a joy, and a great responsibility.
What do you hope young people take away from this book?
Several things. Be true to yourself; never judge a book by its cover; realize we are all complex individuals, more alike than we are different; and poetry is a powerful tool for self-expression, and self-exploration.
What is more challenging for you, poetry or prose? Why?
Prose, by far. I’m less sure of myself, unless writing nonfiction (essays, editorials, etc.). When I write poetry, I’m definitely operating within my comfort zone.
Why did you choose to set the book in the Bronx?
That’s where I went to high school, William Howard Taft to be precise.
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