For Ages
14 to 99

"An absolute masterpiece." -Elizabeth Acevedo, New York Times bestselling author of The Poet X

From the first ever poet-in-residence at Lincoln Center comes a bold coming-of-age story told in verse about a young woman who loses a best friend, but finds herself in the process. The joys of basketball, the tumult of high school, and the bonds of family are lyrically woven together in this must-read novel.

With Lay Li I don’t have to think too hard
I’m the friend of the star
& I don’t mind, not at all
It gives me time to think about my dreams & the WNBA
But when I call Lay Li & she don’t pick up
A pit in my stomach grows like a redwood tree
Sky is used to standing in the shadow of her best friend. Lay Li is the sun everyone orbits around. But since high school started, Lay Li has begun attracting the attention of boys, and Sky is left out in the cold. The only place Sky can find her footing is on the basketball court. With each dribble of the ball, Sky begins to find her own rhythm. Lay Li may always be the sun, but that doesn’t mean Sky can’t shine on her own.
With gritty and heartbreaking honesty, a critically acclaimed poet, delivers her first novel in verse about broken promises, fast rumors, and learning to generate your own light.
“A story about heart and backbone, and one only Mahogany L. Browne could bring forth.” –Jason Reynolds, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Long Way Down

An Excerpt fromChlorine Sky

Me & Lay Li ain’t talking


cause she think she cute

cause she think I ain’t.


Must be pretty boy Curtis

all in her head

all in her mouth

making her forget

her home training.

Making her forget

her daddy got a gun for a living.


& her mama gone.


& this is why I think


she ain’t got no sense, nohow.

Cause ain’t nobody but fast girls

checking for Curtis.

& he keep her name close

& she don’t come home

the same way no more.

She must think she cute!

Must think I ain’t!


Like she ZendayaSkaiStormMeganNickiBeyoncé or something

Like she long curly hair movie star perfect

Like she perfect pink nail salon pop queen perfect

Like she all new Macy’s rack & Adidas shell toe perfect

Like she glossy magazine cover most beautiful girl perfect

Like she ain’t never had a bad day in the sun perfect

Like she ain’t never had a bad picture kind of perfect

Like she got a life don’t nobody judge cause she’s so perfect


I mean,

look how she keep me waiting like

I’m supposed to wait on Curtis

or something

& I hate his light-skinned self!

Especially because he ain’t as funny

as he think.

Especially when he calls me black

& ugly & stupid!


& Lay Li stay grinning


like he the sun

like we ain’t friends


they boyfriends see Lay Li

It’s like they see the best parts of they favorite movie 

& they favorite movie got they favorite soundtrack 

& they favorite soundtrack make them feel strong 

& they swing they arms around & show off to whoever is looking 

I mean, sometimes I get caught looking but I ain’t got n o t h i n g to say

Not Lay Li 

She act like she never lookin’


She must think she cute 

But she ain’t just cute


Lay Li pretty 

& they boyfriends at the skate rink 

forget they home training around her. 

So when Curtis say the things 

I’ve already said about myself 

& she laugh 

I know deep down inside 

she ain’t never care about me at all.


Lay Li the sun


& she called me best friend 

Called me smart 

Called me her ace 

Called me her right-hand sis 

Lay Li called me my name 

Ain’t never call me nothing but my name 

When everyone else call me nothing 

She say best friend--like sis-patna-friend & she laugh bright bright


Because Lay Li the sun 

now I know she just said them lies 

to keep my shadow 

all up & around her sunshine smile


Like that time we skipped school


for the pool party 

& all the girls wear bikinis 

but I got my one-piece on 

with a white T-shirt on top. 

& the boys just looking 

like they mama ain’t taught them nothing worth knowing.


Lay Li got that good hair 

so she don’t care if it’s wet & loose. 

But my hair ain’t close to being good 

so I keep it in a real real real tight ponytail 

until the sun get so hot 

I jump in & cool my sadness down.


It’s like I already know.


So I let my shoulders sink low 

like my heart be 

& I watch Lay Li 

how she walks & everybody stops 

& I’m trying to learn 

how to walk in a room & turn their heads 

how to move in a crowd & be the light 

how to keep a boy’s interest 

but not just any boy 

a boy who remembers my name 

maybe a cute one with long eyelashes 

& gentle hands 

the kind of hands that keep to themselves 

how to keep my sister, Essa, from talking bad to me 

my older sister tell you “don’t mess up my name,” 

she go so far to move her mouth & show her perfect white teeth 

it’s “EEEEEE-SaaHHHH like mantra, like a prayer” 

how to move through the world 

standing tall & demanding to be named properly 

how to be more than a baller 

how to be someone that keep ’em guessing 

how to stop stressing because ain’t nobody 

got time for the kind of shade I got 

but everybody got time for some 

s u n


Lay Li smile at Curtis


& he only a little bit cute 

but he ain’t funny or smart 

so that’s how I know her grin is a lie.


& I pretend I don’t hear his slur 

I pretend I don’t see his hazel eyes 

when he say “lose her ugly black ass” 

& Lay Li laugh. 

Laugh like a knife in the back or laugh hysterical like the girl running from the scary man in a hockey mask or laugh like kids being followed around the mall by security or laugh like I do when my sister, Essa, makes me the butt of the joke. See I laugh & laugh & laugh & laugh & 

she say “Shut up, Curtis” 

but it sounds like   “Come here.”


I dunk my head underwater slow 

& wait 

just wait 

I wait even longer 

for her to say a n y t h i n g like:


“don’t talk about my friend, I don’t care how pretty your eyes is!” 

But she just say “shut up” 

& she l a u g h 

the kind of laugh that make me forget 

we even friends 

the kind of laugh that make me forget 

we even 

& I think 

I could stay here 

where it’s all a blurry aqua blue, 

I think 

I could stay here 

where my eyes 

don’t hurt as much 

& it don’t feel 

like I’ve been looking at the sun 

all day l o n g.


Okay, so boom. This is how Lay Li & I met. 

At the end of summer, when we ready to head into the first semester of freshman year, I got a problem 

with the boys who keep slapping the water. Tyrone & Adam slap the water at me 

when I swim by them. Because everybody knows I’m better than them on the basketball court. 

Still, I keep calm. I play cool. I see a girl at the edge of the pool. Red swimsuit & long wavy ponytail. 

Her right eyebrow lifted skylike: She ready for the joke. But she ain’t laughing. 

The boys slap the water. I swim under the current. I head to her side of the pool. 

& so do they. They slap the water but her mouth ain’t like mine. It ain’t closed 

lock-like & tight, until I’m on the court with a nasty dribble. It ain’t safety pin safe 

like my grandmother taught me. Her mouth curse them until their eyes water. Her lips 

curl & she cross both her arms “& you betta not do it again!” They laugh 

& she don’t. This girl I never seen before got a name: Lay Li. 

I wipe my eyes, stinging from the blue water. “Thank you,” I say, pretending it don’t burn.


Two years later & Lay Li bathing suit


Is way better than mine 

I hate my royal blue one-piece


It’s a hand-me-down 

It’s ugly


I rather wear my basketball shorts 

but they’re the only pair I got 

keep dry when I walk home


Everybody who know somebody 

will skip class for the pool party 

& everybody will have a cute bathing suit on: 

Strawberry red 

or bright yellow 

or periwinkle blue

 or one of those two-pieces with candy cane stripes


But not me


I put a T-shirt on top


& try to hide 

this ugly-ass basic blue swimsuit 

Mines is long in the crotch 

so long the water drains slowly down my leg 

after I climb out the deep end.


I put a T-shirt on top 

& try to hide the history 

of where my people from 

the ones that got a pit bull with a chain around its neck & smoke clouds everywhere


I put a T-shirt on top 

& try to hide where I come from

the kind of folks that park on the lawn & clean they car 

with the Gap Band blasting out the door speakers


I put a T-shirt on top 

& hope no one asks where my dad works. 

Where my dad is? 

Why my sister, Essa, & I always fight on the lawn?


I just want to swim


in the teal green sorta blue bubble


& forget all the things that make me different

for a little while.


Basketball Drills #1


both hands grip the orange world

ridges in black talk back to my fingertips 












For every letter of their name 

I plant my feet aim & shoot 

if I flick my left wrist perfectly 

I’ll soar like the greats.


After my drills


Lay Li & I both sit in the shade 

on the front lawn of the neighborhood candy house 

Miss Irene got white hair & a permanent scowl 

She got white hair, a little white lapdog & wear a dusty muumuu 

She smokes cigarettes, the white stick hanging from the cliff of her lip 

Like a daredevil


Miss Irene say she ain’t got time for us kids 

& don’t let nobody curse on her front yard 

But she got a Costco card & charge pennies on the dollar 

for our favorite sweets


We get a dollar worth of candy in a plastic sandwich bag 

that we share


After my basketball drills, I walk around the barbed gate 

of the neighborhood pool 

I climb into the blue green water and float for days 

Really I only got an hour before the pool closes 

But I don’t care when I’m floating 

It lets me think 

My eyes closed or searching the sky for animal figures 

Ice cream cones & airplanes that skip across the blue blue up


The aqua water carry my arms & legs 

A body of girl & whoosh 

When I’m too tired to move my calves & arms 

I climb out the water & feel less rubber band 

& more light light 

Most days the water burns everything 

my nose & eyes & even my hair is too dry 

but I feel clean 

I feel more me than when I arrived


Lay Li meets me after the pool 

She ain’t get in the pool but she still wears 

her tube top bikini, a towel draped around her shoulder 

like a comma. 

She bites at her cuticles & I already know


It’s been almost two years since silly boys slapped water in the pool 

Now the boys are gone & it’s just me doing floating like a log 

while Mommy & Me classes happen in the shallow end


my muscles hurt after playing Horse alone 

A girl on the basketball court ain’t no different 

than any other baller, if you work hard enough 

that’s what my cousin Inga say 

She the first one to teach me to hold the globe with both hands 

to use my right hand to guide the ball.


Finally out of the pool 

I can see the harsh water peels my skin 

I don’t have any cocoa butter on me 

So I pull my legs up, crisscross-applesauce 

& focus on Lay Li. 

When she bites her nails it’s not because she’s nervous 

More like anxious and angry 

& always it’s about her mama 

“So what happened?” I ask 

& she frowns at her hands 

Then covers her face from the dipping sun


She shrugs

& instantly I feel bad 

I know what it feels like to have 

Too much to say 

So much you can’t speak 

I make noise when I’m nosy 

I slap the mosquitoes gnawing at my legs


It’s been a year since we last talked 

about her mama but that’s the only 

thing that bothers her enough 

to bite-ruin her perfect nails


But Lay Li don’t sweat it 

she don’t swing at the mosquitoes 

she don’t even miss a beat.

“That woman been gone so long 

I can barely remember what she looks like.”


I can’t imagine


what it’s like to forget my mother’s face 

I sit quiet & wait for her story to unfold


My mama still on drugs 

& my daddy ain’t got time for all that 

He don’t want us girls to see her like that 

He says every child deserve to be the sun 

To know they come from the sun 

& if the sun snuff itself to dusk before its time 

& no shine is left to see 

Let it be


One day we woke up & she was already 

a cloudy shadow of herself 

Then one day we woke up & she was 



She only come home when she clean 

She only call home when she sorta sober 

She ain’t never remembered my birthday 

or my sisters’ birthday & I’m like whatever.


When you live where we live 

You say what it is & if you can’t say what it is 

Or if it hurt too much 

Or maybe it’s too confusing 

You just say “whatever.”


That way you ain’t no lie


Don’t nobody Want to Call It

Especially when it got more faces than any solitary name 

but if I’m honest 

I want to know if Lay Li seen the zombies too


The ones who take over my uncles’ bodies

after weeks of playing ghost 

only to return him to our front door 

with his clothes all crumpled 

& eyes brimming red


Lay Li is the only one I can talk to about 

The smell of hot ash & burned glass 

“You know what it looks like.” 

She stands up from the grass

swinging her dry striped towel in the air 

“It looks like the walking dead.”


On the way to my house


I need to rinse the chlorine off my skin 

I need to remember who I am 

Lay Li say, “Where’s your cocoa butter?” 

& I know she wants to call me ashy. 

When I walk through the front door 

I’m surprised no one is home 

I turn on the television & tell Lay Li I’ll be right back 

Right out the blue Lay Li calls to me already running up the stairs

“I’m just tired of crying 

over someone 

that’s been gone so long.”


Lay Li laughs


like the joke’s on everybody but her


Lay Li 

squints into the mirror & pouts 

Lay Li 

applies more lipstick than a little 

Lay Li 

takes my lip gloss as backup just in case 

Lay Li say 

“It’s so boring here. Let’s call Shawn.”


I laugh like the joke is on Shawn 

He’s her old crush & first real boyfriend 

Since her mama left the house 

But then I realized she just called my house boring


& now my feelings are hurt. 

Lay Li say 

“Don’t be like that. I ain’t mean nothing by it.” 

Lay Li 

pull my ponytail a little 

Lay Li 

is forgiven 



I move


her hand & brush at my hair 

I mimic the mirror 

Reach to take back my lip gloss 

& my pride 

from Lay Li’s hands 

It’s the inexpensive kind from the neighborhood CVS


She pretends she’s gonna keep it 

like a child & its pacifier 

her arms swing above both of our heads 

helicopter style


Out of my reach

She is pleased with herself 

& giggling to my hands 

waving in the air 

fire the roof is on fire

but it ain’t

& I don’t crack a smile


This makes her laugh even harder

All her teeth showing

All my steam moving like a cloud when I cut my eyes

She sighs 

rolls her eyes 

then tosses it to me before she grabs the phone


& dials with one last perfect pink nail


same color as Essa’s (I think) 

But I don’t say anything

Just pucker my lips as 

she watches me with boring eyes apply the sheen


Like an impostor.

Under the Cover