Earlier this year, I went to a library conference where I was lucky enough to meet a lot of wonderful young adult authors. One of the brand new authors I had a chance to meet was Jason Reynolds, whose first book was just published in January. I finally got around to breaking out my (signed!) copy of his book, which brings me to…
What I’m Reading Now: When I Was the Greatest, by Jason Reynolds
What’s It About (Jacket Description): In Bed Stuy, New York, a small misunderstanding can escalate into having a price on your head—even if you’re totally clean. This gritty, triumphant debut captures the heart and the hardship of life for an urban teen.
“A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.”
Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.
And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.
Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should’ve been—where the people aren’t so friendly, and even less forgiving.
Do I Like It: YES YES YES
Thoughts: I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Northern Illinois. I hated sports as a teenager, and my best (and geographically closest) friend was a ten minute drive away. So believe me when I say that reading about Ali growing up in the middle of Brooklyn, boxing, and with his best friend living next door is something that is utterly and completely outside my experience. But I am so glad I’m reading it, because this book is great.
It’s a short book, so I’m over halfway through it already, and I’ve realized that it’s definitely going to be a book that doesn’t have a ton of action or fast-paced plot. It’s not a quest or an adventure or even a traditional coming of age story. It’s more a slice of life, with just a little excitement to keep the tension up. Not a lot has happened so far except getting to know the characters, and the boys preparing to go to a big party. But it’s a slice of life of a really endearing character, surrounded by a fully realized and engaging neighborhood of realistic characters.
The narrator Ali is such a likeable guy. He loves his family, is fiercely protective of his little sister, is devoted to his best friend Noodles, and almost equally devoted to Noodles’ brother Needles. Reading about the three of them – Ali, Noodles, and Needles – is completely immersive and engaging, even when not that much is going on. They are all so much more complicated than “the boxer,” “the comic geek,” and “the knitter with a syndrome” (yes, Needles knits,) but each of these descriptors really does tell you a lot about each character. I feel like they are all real people, like I’m actually reading about real events in a memoir or something. And Ali’s voice is so good – he’s smart, but he’s also a part of his neighborhood and the world he grew up in. He seamlessly integrates slang and the mind of a teenage boy focused on girls and partying with a the thoughts of a kid working hard to be the best he can be, take care of his family, and be engaged with the world around him. He feels even more real than every other character, which is saying something.
I think my favorite part of this book so far though has been reading about Ali and his sister, Jazz. Mostly because Jazz is so great. I kind of want to read a book from her point of view. She’s younger than Ali, 10 or 11, and simultaneously mature beyond her years and still a lovable little kid. She loves to cook and braids Ali’s hair and has the same caretaking instincts he does. But she also loves to watch trashy, Jerry Springer-esque TV shows and talk on the phone every night to her friends. And she and Ali are clearly super devoted to each other, even when they get on each other’s nerves like siblings do. It’s a joy to read about.
So I highly recommend When I Was the Greatest, even if it doesn’t seem like the kind of book you would normally relate to or pick up. It’s the greatest – really!