By Elizabeth Wroten
YA Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
On 24, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: 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.
Another winner from Jason Reynolds. Clearly he likes to write stories that take place in Bed Stuy. Reynolds is really good at creating a sense of place. He describes the setting so well it’s easy to picture yourself standing around seeing the neighborhood. And part of the setting are the neighbors. There is always mention of the people who live around the neighborhood and around the main characters of the book and they really help bring the story to life.
When I Was Greatest was actually pretty exciting, not something I always expect from realistic fiction. Even though the trouble Ali and Noodles get into doesn’t happen until relatively late in the book (maybe a little past half way through) you just know it’s coming and you can’t help wanting to tell them what a bad idea their plan to go to this party is. But the beauty of the story is when Ali reflects back on whose fault everything is and he takes as much blame as he places on Noodles. As an adult reading it (and probably teens will pick up on this too) there isn’t really any one person to blame. Plus they’re 15, they make bad choices sometimes, but those shouldn’t have to place them in the danger they find themselves in.
When I Was Greatest is less introspective than The Boy in the Black Suit, but Ali and Matt have their thoughtfulness in common. Greatest is a lot more about the friendship between Ali and Noodles and Needles and their brotherhood. There are also themes of parent-child relationships and Ali’s relationship with his sister which contrasts with the sibling relationship between Noodles and Needles. This would be a great book for boys to pick up, but anyone interested in more contemporary, urban fiction should give Reynolds a try. At 230 pages I’m not sure it’s exactly the book for reluctant readers, but it’s exciting enough that they might stick with it. Plus the dialog and setting might draw in readers (this is no Victorian classic).
If I have one quibble it’s with the cover. First of all there is a gun in the story, but I wouldn’t say it has an especially prominent or important role. Not particularly. I would have suggested some boxing gloves. But really the yarn covering the gun is crocheted and Needles knits. A minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless.