When I Was the Greatest

by Jason Reynolds

With complex, genuine, and sympathetic characters, a strong sense of place, and spot-on... read more

With complex, genuine, and sympathetic characters, a strong sense of place, and spot-on writing, this understated book offers a beautiful and powerful account of the value of friendship, family, and community. Family is all-important to sixteen-year-old Ali. He respects his mother, misses his father, and adores his little sister, Jazz. His long-time neighbors and community members include Malloy, the Vietnam vet who has trained Ali as a boxer since he was six years old, and Ms. Brenda, the upstairs neighbor always available to keep an eye on Ali and Jazz. Ali’s best friends are Noodles and Needles, his next-door neighbors. Noodles, a closet artist and comic book geek, is a tough guy unable to back up his talk with action. Needles is a sweet, clever kid with Tourette’s syndrome. Although Noodles constantly criticizes Needles for his behavior, the community easily accepts and adjusts to Needles’s idiosyncrasies. When the three boys sneak into the hottest party in their Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Needles’s tics lead to a violent fight with an older, rougher crowd. Noodles doesn’t defend his brother and it’s up to Ali to step in. In the aftermath, the emotional damage caused by Noodles’s abandonment of Needles is far more difficult to heal than Ali’s and Needles’s physical injuries. Author Jason Reynolds weaves the relationships among Ali, his friends, and neighbors into a portrait of a supportive, strong community. With a mix of quiet, descriptive moments and potent passages, the novel artfully addresses difficult concepts such as the failings of education and power of negative stereotypes. (Age 13 and older)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2015

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