If there is one book that I first heard about last year that I want to get tons of buzz this year, it has to be When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds. I first heard about this book at the Simon Teen Blogger Party at BEA 2013 when Jason Reynolds took the stage to talk about his book and life, and wound up leaving a very strong impression on me. In fact, it was such a strong impression I made the decision right away to start reading his book while I waited in lines at BEA, and was quick to finish it before I even returned home. Now months later, my mind is still reveling in what Iíve read, and Iím super excited to help get the word out on a most deserving book.
When I Was The Greatest tells the story of 15 year old Ali who lives in Brooklyn on a one floor of a brownstone with his mother Doris, and his sister Jazz.† His best friend Noodles lives next door and is constantly getting into trouble because he is a little impulsive. Noodleís also has a younger brother who is known as Needles, and who has tourettes syndrome. One night the three boys are invited to a super exclusive party, and it is a night that changes their lives forever. On the surface, the story sounds like it is going to be really simple but believe me, it is so much more than what it seems.
All of the characters were a little bit different from each other which is what really drew me into the story. The events of the story are told from Aliís point of view. Ali is a very logical kid with a good heart.† His father has been in and out of jail since Ali was little, and his mother has to work two jobs in order to make sure that her family is provided for. This leaves Ali the responsibility of taking care of his sister from time to time, and helping out around the house. I really liked that there was no shaming in this story regarding single parent households. In fact, it just really told it like it is, and that honesty made me respect the book even more. Also, even though Ali comes from a single parent household, he isnít neglected. His mother stays on top of him, and she also keeps an eye out for Noodles and Needles as well.
The neighborhood where Ali, Noodles, and Needles live is not very wealthy but it is very vibrant. I could literally feel the atmosphere buzzing off the page. When you are reading, you get the sense of the movement, and the people coming together, and helping each other out. You could really tell that Jason Reynolds was writing from a point of view that he was used to and that he could personally relate to. I canít say enough about how much I loved how it flowed off the page, and how there was so much acceptance both spoken and unspoken. For instance, nobody judged Needles for having tourettes syndrome, and nobody really cared that the only thing that seemed to calm him down was knitting. It was just something that was accepted, and that was something that was just so heart warming to read about.
Friendship and family were both really big themes that were portrayed throughout When I Was The Greatest. There are so many different layers of complexities that when you think youíve got all the details figured out, something else comes up. Ali, Noodles, and Needles friendship is so vibrant and it is obvious that the three of them care for each other but sometimes unpleasant truths are revealed and the bonds of both friendship and family are tested in several different ways. I really liked the crossover between the two different categories Ė friendship and family Ė because sometimes you do have friends that become more like family and family that is more like just a casual friend. I also liked this viewpoint that was presented in the story because there was absolutely NO judgment. No judgment regarding single households, no judgment regarding the mistakes of the characters, and no judgment regarding how each character chose to handle what happened in the story. This story just felt so human because it was not sugarcoated. It stressed the fact that humans have flaws but that you canít judge circumstances from the outside Ö or the inside for that matter. Every situation is different. Every person is different. There is no need for judgment in this world.
I honestly could keep going on and on about When I Was The Greatest but I think that it might get a little repetitive. So, Iím going to leave it at this: YOU NEED TO CHECK OUT THIS BOOK. Itís diverse, heartfelt, and one of those books that will stick with you for a long time after youíre done reading it. Take it from me who finished the book back in June 2013, and still canít stop buzzing about it. Please, please, please give this book a chance!
Disclosure: Received ARC at the Simon Teen Blogger Party at BEA 2013
Other reviews of When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds:
April’s Review: “Yíall, this book needs to be added to your TBR list.“