Book Review: When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds

Book: When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds

Published January 2014 by Atheneum Books For Young Readers|240 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the e-book from the library

Series: None

Genre: YA Contemporary

In Bed Stuy, New York, a small misunderstanding can escalate into having a price on your head—even if you’re totally clean. This gritty, triumphant debut that Publishers Weekly calls “a funny and rewarding read” captures the heart and the hardship of life for an urban teen.

A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.

Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.

And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.

Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should’ve been—where the people aren’t so friendly, and even less forgiving.

When I read All-American Boys a few years ago, I really liked it.  Enough to want to read his other books, but unfortunately, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

One of the biggest reasons why it was just okay was the writing.  The writing style is perfect for middle grade, and I really did think I was reading a middle grade novel, but the writing style itself didn’t match up with what happened in the story.  I was surprised that Ali was in high school because I (wrongly) assumed he was 12/13, and not the 15/16 that is actually mentioned in the book.

It’s also pretty short, and you could easily read it in a couple of hours.  I did want it to be longer, because it felt like things weren’t developed enough.  In particular, the big moment of the book really felt like a let down.  I expected something bigger, and something that wasn’t so easily resolved.  It was resolved a lot faster than I thought, and even then, it felt like Ali got very lucky that his father was there to take care of it.

However, it really did feel like I was sitting next to Ali on the stoop as he told me this story.  There is something about his voice that’s very honest and raw, and I did want to hear more of Ali’s story.  It felt really personal, like we were there with Ali, instead of feeling distanced from what was going on.

I also liked seeing the relationship Ali had with his family, his friends, and his neighbors.  In particular, I liked seeing how Needles dealt with Tourette’s.  While I don’t knit, I do crochet, and crafting as therapy is pretty accurate.  It’s different, but I also thought it was really cool.

2 stars.  I thought it could have been longer, in order to develop the characters and flesh out some of the events a little more.  But I also thought that Ali was pretty easy to relate to, and I think a lot of readers will really like him.

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