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Estelle: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

When I Was the Greatest by Jason ReynoldsWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
Publisher: Simon Teen/Atheneum Books
Pages: 240
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.

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January 28, 2014 - 2:56 pm

Brittany @ The Book Addict's Guide - Wow, do I need to read this!? I never would have picked it up but now that you wrote this glowing review…..

January 28, 2014 - 2:53 pm

Christina @ Allodoxophobia - Everytime I see this cover, it jumps out at me. I’m so glad you loved it; will have to check it out!

January 27, 2014 - 1:45 am

Alexa S. - Wow. Just WOW. It’s pretty darn awesome to see that this book really left an impression on you. Books like that are always worth taking a second look at, at least in my case. I’m definitely going to consider checking this one out after reading this review!

January 24, 2014 - 7:56 pm

molly @ wrapped up in books - You have made me very excited to read this!

January 24, 2014 - 4:11 pm

Betty - I’m pretty sure this is the book you tweeted or rec’d to me on goodreads a couple of weeks ago. Anyway– it sounds good. I’m a little turned off by names like Noodles and Needles, but maybe I’d get over it?? I like that the focus is on family. I like a book that can give me a break from all the heavy romance. PLUS– YOU CRIED.

January 23, 2014 - 10:45 pm

Lauren @ Love is not a triangle - This book was not even on my radar, but you’ve definitely peaked my interest in it. I love the diverse urban setting, the male protagonist, the social issues, sibling relationships, writing that stands out, and especially that knitted gun to the cover. Whatever that is, I want it. You’ve definitely made me wonder what happened at that Party. Thanks for highlight this!

January 23, 2014 - 7:55 pm

Maggie @ Just a Couple More Pages - I know when I read this (and I will read it) I will like it, but it’s one of those where I feel like I need to be in the right place to read it and I’m hoping I find that right place sooner rather than later.

January 23, 2014 - 12:40 pm

Rachel - I wasn’t even going to give this one a chance because it seems SO FAR from what I usually read, Then you recommended it to me on Goodreads, and I decided to consider it. And now that I know it made you cry, I’m so reading it. I love the themes of brotherhood and friendship, and I’m interested to see what the big thing that got to you is!

January 23, 2014 - 12:22 pm

Lucy - I have this book on hold at the library so I’m happy to see your rave review, Estelle! It sounds like the setting, characters and story just comes together perfectly. I’m worried about that party and the emotional aftermath. Your review makes me so excited to read this one!

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