When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
Publisher: Simon Teen/Atheneum Books
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Brooklyn, family, friendship, loyalty
Format read: ARC from BEA Simon Teen Blogger Party. (Thanks!)
Summary: Life in Brooklyn for Ali and his family hasn’t been easy. He attempts to steer clear of the bad stuff and just enjoy time with his neighbors, Noodles and Needles, work for and train with the old veteran down the street, and watch out for his little sister while his mom works two jobs. But when the boys are “invited” to a big party in their neighborhood, the summer takes a turn…
I’ve been eagerly anticipating When I Was The Greatest since May, and it did not disappoint. Not a bit. But I will say this… even after I read the summary and heard the author speak (so well, I might add) the story snuck up on me and affected me in ways I was not expecting.
Let’s start with Ali. I loved this kid. There was something so earnest about him, and I loved his observations about all sorts of factors in his life: his neighborhood (the dichotomy of the crowd that lived there), the status of his parents’ relationship (they didn’t live together), his 11-going-on-50 sister (adorable), and most importantly, his friendship with two brothers, Noodles and Needles, and their relationship with one another.
You see Needles has Tourette syndrome and even though Noodles won’t let anyone mess with his brother, he has no problem messing with him on his own. Ali has a strong sense of right and wrong, and knows that Noodles does not treat his brother the way he should. But he’s not exactly sure how to handle it. Instead, he minds his own business and subtly watches Needles’ back when Noodles is rough on him.
Much of When I Was the Greatest is an introduction to Ali’s Brooklyn block, how his relationship with his friends began, the story of his parents, and snapshots of moments that transpire through the summer. Until. The Party. You know… The Party. Ali, Noodles, and Needles kind of sort of get themselves invited to an off-limits infamous gathering where they plan to wear the best clothes, have the best hair, and fit in just for a few minutes so they can say they experienced one of MoMo’s exclusive events. Can you see their puffed up chests now?
Absolutely nothing good can come out of this, right? Especially since the plan is totally, utterly built on lies. But nothing prepared me for what happened. I think part of it was because it wasn’t so much the event that shocked me but what happened afterwards and the total breakdown of brotherhood and friendship, and ultimately, loyalty. (And how about the surprising sacrifices people make for one another?)
I cried. There I said it. I cried. And again, it came totally out of nowhere and it wasn’t even after a moment I anticipated.
That right there is some stand-out writing. Reynolds makes this urban setting come alive with its niches and diverse characters, and gives us the opportunity to get to know a teenager who cares deeply for his family and his friends and believes people should treat each other fairly and with respect. Ali may act older than he is, and even more with it than he is, but he does have a certain vulnerability and a great amount of strength. That parallel, that dimension made him so incredibly real to me.
Reynolds’ writing is smooth and incredibly effective (in a little over 200 pages, too). Plus it was refreshing to have a book that illustrated the big wide world we have out there — this grand melting pot of people — which, unfortunately, is such a rarity in young adult fiction these days. But back to When I Was The Greatest. It’s exactly what I love so much about reading: great characters, actions and themes that make me want to discuss every detail with someone immediately, and most importantly, feelings that linger.