Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade is kind of the Platonic ideal of an ensemble book in my head. It’s about a series of distinct voices, each of them fascinating and fully realized on its own, but so much better when taken as a whole.
One day, in a classroom in the Bronx, one of the boys decides that, instead of writing his assigned essay about the Harlem Renaissance, he’s going to write a poem. Why, he wonders, would a person write an essay about Langston Hughes when Langston Hughes was all about poetry—plus, poems are way shorter to write. The (fantastic, tough-lovey) teacher obviously isn’t letting him get away with that. Instead he makes him read his poem out loud to the class. And thus begins Open Mike Friday, a weekly classroom tradition.
As the students in the class read their own poems out loud every Friday, they each find their own voices and they begin to understand each other and come together as a community. I know that sounds cheesy. But the book doesn’t feel quite so cheesy when you read it—each kid’s poem is distinct and troubling and perfectly pitched in its own way, and they fit together as an awesome, readable poetry slam.