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When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
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it was amazing

Pacing the stage at the city library, the large, dreadlocked man dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt exclaimed, “I wanted to show that the people in my neighborhood were just normal people.” Jason Reynolds went on to say that when he was growing up he could not find himself in books. His idol and mentor Walter Dean Myers would come a few years later, but in his formative years Reynolds could not get into books because the people he knew were not written into the books. In his Coretta Scott King award winning novel When I Was The Greatest Reynolds succeeds in creating compelling human characters who stand out in stark contrast to the cardboard caricatures that pass as African-American characters in what is popularly referred to as street lit or hood books.

Ali lives in Bed-Stuy with his mother, Doris, and younger sister, Jazz. His father is around, but no longer lives with the family, but he is still part of Ali’s life. The novel begins when we meet Noodles and Needles, two boys that move into the rundown brownstone and former crack house next door. The author references Spike Lee toward the end of the book, and the neighborhood has that nostalgic Crooklyn feel even though it is set in present day. There is the woman downstairs that watches after the kids when Doris is at her second job. The barbershop down the street doubles as the local news source and oddly a pet shop. An old man teaches boxing and life lessons to local kids, and a local hustler offers haircuts on Mondays when the barbershop is closed. Bed-Stuy is the village that raises Ali and his friends.

Reynolds creates nuanced characters that are neither good nor bad. Noodles uses a tough exterior to hide his inner dork that likes to draw comic book characters like the Hulk “perfectly, every muscle, every hair. The only difference was he drew a Yankees cap on the Hulk, but it looked like it belonged there.” His brother Needles suffers from Tourette’s, and while we don’t get to know his inner life we learn much about the characters by the way they treat him. The story is told from Ali’s point of view, and Reynolds has imbued him with enough common sense and critical thinking to allow the reader to see his world for what it really is, yet he balances it with enough doubt and immaturity to ground him in the reality of the neighborhood.

It is that balance that makes the book easy to read. Unlike many young adult novels with scenes of violence the characters in When I Was The Greatest must use it on a personal level not a geopolitical one. Ali doesn’t have to save the world from ruthless dictators, evil corporations, or he who shall not be named. He saves his friend. And when the choice is made to fight, the characters must deal with the consequences of those actions albeit with the help of the village.

It is not the responsibility of authors to create or be role models, but in this book Reynolds accomplishes both. As a teacher in an alternative school, I kept imagining my students reading the book. If they chose to emulate any of the characters in this book, I would be happy.

Much of this book is a character study, and I walked away from wishing that I could know the people that populate this world. However, while reading the book I did become anxious for the conflict to develop. When it did, Reynolds was able to fill it with enough emotion and tension to easily pull the reader through the end of the book. A good reader will be able to guess the next developments in the plot, but it is not the plot that matters. It is the people. In the end, I wanted to sit on the stoop with Ali, Noodles, and Needles talking about girls, making up raps, and smelling the dinner that Jazz was whipping up that night.
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Reading Progress

March 21, 2016 – Started Reading
March 21, 2016 – Shelved
March 21, 2016 –
page 90
March 24, 2016 – Finished Reading

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