I had the very fortunate privilege of attending the Simon Teen Blogger Preview during BEA 2013. At the event, authors were interviewed on stage, but were actually asked interesting questions. We got cocktails and learned about awesome new books. At that event, one author left more of an impression on me and had me immediately rushing to start his book after the event. That author was†Jason Reynolds. He is an author who interviews quite well and from the way he answered the questions, you could kind of tell that this man could TOTALLY weave an interesting story. And so, on a whim, I decided to start reading†When I Was The Greatest. Y’all, this book needs to be added to your TBR list. It needs a lot of noise and a lot of buzz. It releases January 7, 2014, but I want to start talking about it now. I want to start what I hope will be an avalanche of reviews for this awesome and deserving book.
First things first, as I read†When I Was The Greatest, I kind of imagined the words in my head †to be told with the voice of the author. Seriously, he should read his audiobook when it comes out, like as the narrator. He’d be good at it, I think. Anyways, doing that added a different, good dimension to the book.†When I Was The Greatest is the story of 15 year old Ali who lives in Brooklyn on one floor of a brownstone with his mother Doris, who does not play around, and his little sister Jazz. Instead of being one of those books that is like BOO SINGLE PARENTS, this one makes no judgments. Ali has a best friend, who is known as Noodles. Noodles is constantly getting into trouble because he is totally impulsive. Noodles has a brother with tourettes syndrome, who is known as Needles. By the way, these are nicknames given by Jazz. Anyways, the three boys get invited to a very exclusive party, and it is a night that will define the boys. That’s all I can say, I do not want to give the plot points away. It sounds simple, and maybe the plotline is, but for me, the themes were much more important.
Ali is one of those kids who has his head on straight. He’s logical. He’s very levelheaded, and so he is usually cleaning up after Noodles’s mess. I liked that Ali was portrayed as someone who is non-violent, but who will fight if his friends are backed into a corner. He came across as a very likable character with a good heart, which is one of those things that matters to me as I am reading. As Ali is never very extreme, I thought it was fitting that the story is told through his lens, it’s one that feels like it’s coming through a reliable narrator. I suppose as narrator of this first person book, I trusted Ali’s perceptions of the various situations and events that occurred.
As I said above, the themes within†When I Was The Greatest are important to me, more so than my prattling about the plot. This book explores friendship. It tests the bounds of friendship and what happens when someone crosses the line. There are some ugly truths about certain characters revealed. However, just when you think you have someone and their motivations figured out, we learn that there is another layer to the story. I love that. I loved that friendship is not portrayed as this flat thing that’s completely black and white with rigid lines. Instead, it is portrayed as something vibrant. It is something that has questionable, morally complex areas. I loved reading about the friendship between Ali, Noodles and Needles — whether it was Ali and Noodles doing something silly like going to the yarn store, or whether it’s Ali, Noodles and Needles getting ready for the party they are invited to. It’s such a vibrant, interesting friendship. And I know I am getting repetetive, but for reals it is well done.
Speaking of things that are vibrant, the community and setting within Reynolds’ book hum with life. Set in a Brooklyn neighborhood, you can practically feel a sense of movement and people coming from the page. The neighborhood is described as very accepting. The people who live there might not be wealthy, but they definitely take care of their own — whether that is teaching a neighborhood kid to box and paying him $20 to help out or inviting someone like Noodles – whose mother does not cook – to dinner. I loved that instead of condemning Needles, the neighborhood does not bat an eyelash at his condition. I really felt like†When I Was The Greatest gave off this whole vibe of acceptance and I guess, neighborly feelings.
Finally, the other really big theme that I picked up on was family. As you have gleaned from my plot breakdown, Ali lives in a single parent home. What I did not mention is that his dad has been in and out of jail. However, this book does not go down the path of holier than thou preaching. Instead, we see that Ali has a good home life. His mother works very, very hard but she cares so deeply for her kids and her stern love totally shines through. Then there’s his father. You might think his father is totally absent and played as a villainous character. You would be wrong in that aspect. Instead, he’s totally present and is shown as a flawed man who absolutely loved his children. I never got a sense of judgment while reading this book. I never got that sense that the author was conveying a message about “broken” families being not as good as “whole” families. Instead, I just felt like†When I Was The Greatest showed that family, in it’s various iterations can be incredible and awesome. A person’s family might not be traditional, but you know what it is their own flesh and blood and so, you love them because of that.
To Sum It Up — The Reasons Why You Need To Read†When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds:
- The writing has a life to it – I never once felt the book was being flat or boring.
- The setting – who does not love a tightly knit community?
- The multifaceted characters – there are different layers to all of the characters.
- The feeling of acceptance throughout the book. I just came away from it feeling pretty peaceful.
Disclosure: Gifted at the Simon Teen Blogger Preview Party at BEA
Other reviews of When I Was The Greatest:
None yet – drop me a link when you review this book and I will add it.