I greatly enjoy Jason Reynolds’ voice in young adult literature. I think his works are necessary to adding diverse literature for young adult readers, and I have liked his novels to this point. Since I read and LOVED All American Boys and Long Way Down, I think I may have a hard time going back to his first books (case in point: The Boy in the Black Suit was just okay). So I had that in mind when I read When I Was the Greatest, which is apparently trending at my library.
Ali is fifteen and lives in a brownstone in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood (the infamous setting of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Ali’s younger sister Jazz is an outgoing and charismatic young woman. His neighbors are too brothers, nicknamed Needles and Noodles. Ali’s mom is a caring but overworked woman, and his dad floats in and out of the picture after time in prison. Needles has a syndrome (we find out what, in the novel). Noodles therefore tries to care for him in the best way possible. But sometimes, fear and bravery live side-by-side, as all three young men are about to find out.
This book was a mixed bag for me. The plotting is a bit slow and predictable. The conflict takes quite a while to unfold, and when it does, the resolution feels both convenient and understated. That said, this is a novel appropriate for younger teens, and Reynolds knows it well. The characterization of the teens is fantastic, and that’s where the novel shines. Ali is an interesting protagonist, and he paints a picture of the neighborhood for his audience with a vivid brush. This is not Reynolds’ best novel, but some of his real strengths as a writer emerge in this novel.
Cross-posted to my blog.