“You spend your whole life running, paying attention to nothing but all the dumb stuff, and then one day, while you are running, something runs into you and leaves you with nothing. I really didn’t understand totally what he meant, but it somehow made sense in way” (47)
Jason Reynolds has written many young adult (YA) novels. I chose When I Was the Greatest on a whim, or maybe it chose me. Reynolds does a spectacular job of providing a nonjudgmental insight into inner city life. The characters cover a wide range of attributes: different income levels, dis/abilities, and family shapes. This is a great anytime read and a way to get the young adults in your life to read. Like many other YA books, this one is about friendship and finding one’s true self. The protagonist, Ali, is 16 and becomes friends with Noodles & Needles brothers (Needles has Tourette’s Syndrome and it’s woven into the novel in a powerful way), and moves into their Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
The protagonist’s mom (Doris Brooks): “She’s a social worker, and all that really means is that she takes care of mentally sick people. She makes sure they get things they need, kind of like being a step-step-step mother to them. At least that’s how she breaks it down to us. I could see how that could be stressful” (3) Brooks sets the tone for the 232-page novel with the warnings she gives her son Ali, as he reflects “But I was starting to understand what my mother said, about getting tired of bailing people out. I wasn’t ready to quit on my homeboy yet, but he was pushing me and pushing hard (86).
Reading this novel through an adult and professional lens, a few passages stood out for me. “The first thing we had to figure out was where to get yarn from. It’s funny. When you don’t know nothing about something, you really don’t know where to even begin to find stuff that goes with the thing you don’t know nothing about. (28) Reading that, I dreamed of starting a young adult male book club, where we would read this novel and spend time discussing chapters and knitting each week. Because as another character states in the novel, “No one was ever showing him anything, so he couldn’t quite understand most of the subjects”. He said teachers were just talking. Not showing. And he was a show -don’t tell kind of guy. Black said he probably could’ve been a scientist or a doctor or a lawyer if his teachers had got that he was different. I agreed. He probably could’ve been. (81)