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Between the Lines

Review

Between the Lines

The kids in Mr. Ward’s poetry class couldn’t be more different: Darrian dreams of being a newspaperman and fears disappointing his father, especially after his mother’s death. Jenesis is trying to survive the foster care system and worries about what will happen to her once she turns 18. Li doesn’t want to disappoint her Chinese parents by falling in love with poetry instead of medicine. Angela just wants to get over her fear of everything. Marcel needs an outlet for his anger after seeing his father wrongly arrested. Kyle wants to show that he’s more than his heart condition. Freddie’s trying to raise her niece and keep her mother’s alcoholism under control. Valentina wants to show that she can be both an American and proud of her immigrant parents. Tyrone wants to continue the success he had last year.

In BETWEEN THE LINES, Nikki Grimes’ follow up to her Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel BRONX MASQUERADE, the students are all there for individual reasons, but when the school year ends, they all leave with a similar feeling. They are empowered to be their own true selves.

"The poems themselves are beautifully written and deep. While the subject matter is heavy, Grimes never forgets that she is writing for and about teenagers."

Grimes’ novel is a mix of poetry and first-person accounts, written from the point of view of each character. Each voice is distinct. The short chapters show snapshots of moments in the present or life-altering memories in their pasts, followed by a free verse poem based on those thoughts. Both provide an emotional punch that continues to grow as Grimes revisits each character multiple times.

The issues that the students deal with are issues that are affecting teenagers everywhere, but aren’t necessarily ones that are talked about openly. Do teenagers who are not in foster care think about the teens who are? Do the teenagers who are put in the position of parenting their parents have any peers to really confide in? Parental disappointment is a universal theme, but what about when that’s tied up in cultural expectations? Grimes provides a conservation starter for these topics and more by crafting characters who are incredibly easy to care about and root for. She makes these topics real by attaching feelings to the facts of each situation.

At first, it can be slightly difficult to keep the students’ stories straight, but that confusion is worked out with each page turn. Their character growth --- toward understanding each other and learning to look for what’s below the surface of their classmates --- follows the same trajectory as the poetry they produce, which culminates in an end-of-the-year poetry slam which pits the girls against the boys. Prior to the group poem, each one is written by a single author. In the last two poems, their voices are blended together as an obvious metaphor that shows how close they’ve become, how entwined all of their stories are and how, despite all of their outward differences, the similarities they have bridge the divides they faced at the beginning of the year.

While the pacing of the story is measured, Grimes doesn’t provide a concise time element to show how far apart each poem is written. The book takes place over the course of a school year and the poetry open mics are held weekly, but each time the characters switch, it isn’t always clear how far along in the calendar year the story has moved. In the scheme of the overall storyline, this doesn’t matter.

The poems themselves are beautifully written and deep. While the subject matter is heavy, Grimes never forgets that she is writing for and about teenagers. There are moments of levity and humor. There is Li crushing on Darrian, and Darrian crushing on her back. There is Kyle teaching Angela how to ride a skateboard and Marcel trying to get over his nerves to ask Freddie to hang out outside of school. They are more than the issues and backgrounds that they all, in some way, fear will define them.

But they never give up or stop supporting each other. It’s a lesson that’s well worth learning and Grimes instructs in the most thoughtful way.

Reviewed by Liz Sauchelli on March 13, 2018

Between the Lines
by Nikki Grimes