Sixteen-year-old Ali is a walking contradiction. He’s a talented boxer-in-training who’s afraid of stepping into the ring; a straight-laced kind of kid on a bad block in Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for drugs and violence. Most notably, he’s a deeply compassionate teenager who exudes maturity and grace among circumstances that seem like they wouldn’t allow for such hope. Jason Reynolds’ novel When I Was the Greatest chronicles Ali’s friendship with next-door brothers Needles and Noodles as the three prepare for the party of a lifetime—and pay the consequences for putting themselves into such a risky situation.
When I was researching TBF authors, I stumbled upon Jason Reynolds blog and after reading a few of his posts, I became interested in learning more about who this author was. Also, Beyonce featured Jason Reynolds on her blog during Black History Month. If Queen B is a fan of Jason Reynolds, I knew that he was someone I needed to get to know better. And what better way to get to know an author than through his books? My only challenge, however, was deciding which book I would read first! After learning that Reynolds’ was the 2015 winner of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award for When I Was The Greatest, I decided that it would be the book I was going to read!
The world Jason Reynolds has created in When I Was the Greatest is scary at times. There are elements of violence, drinking and drugs, gangs, and so on - but that's not at all what the book was about. Instead, Reynolds’ tells a gentler story that focuses on the power of friendship, the importance of family, and loyalty. The topic of family stood out to me the most because family plays a role in everyones lives, especially teens, but often is ignored in young adult literature for the sake of plot and romance.
Also, even though things may not be perfect, the story is never focused on that imperfection. The focus is instead on Ali, Noodles, and Needles, and how they develop and grow throughout the book. I have to praise Reynolds’ for how real he makes the characters feel; their voices, relationships, problems, and experiences feel like something that could happen, that does happen in real life. I also liked how there were strong adults in this book who served as role models and mentors. What I particularly liked was how these adults have all made mistakes and not only do they own up to them, but they talk about how much they’ve learned from them. It shows how every mistake is a learning experience and how there is always room to grow in every situation.
I am so glad that I discovered Jason Reynolds and his amazing book. I look forward to reading more of his work and seeing him at TBF!