by Jason Reynolds (2015)

It’s no secret that teens and young adults today struggle with many intense issues that take a terrible toll. Drugs, broken homes, bullying in person and online, abuse of various sorts, and school shootings are just some of the issues they face daily that create a sense there’s no trust and safety anywhere. Adults need to step up to help in any way they can with what they have, whether it’s money, time, sharing a hobby, talent, or skill, or just caring. Jason Reynolds has seen the need and shares his special writing talent to help many young people.

Before I talk about the book, readers should know what an extraordinary person Reynolds is. Inspired by rap, he started writing poetry at age 9…but never read a novel from cover to cover until he was 17! Why? Because the books were BORING. He knows he’s not the only young person who “hated” reading:

“I know there are a lot — A LOT — of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys, don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom.”

Reynolds earned a B.A. in English at the University of Maryland, moved to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, and eventually began writing books that AREN’T boring for young people. Thirteen books later he’s accumulated a list of awards too long to include here and widespread recognition for his work. Recently he was selected to be the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year position that will give him even more opportunities to MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

When I Was the Greatest is Reynolds’ first teen/young adult book. Situated in his then-neighborhood in Brooklyn, it’s a story about an important period in the lives of 3 mid-teen boys and the people around them: Ali, Noodles, and Needles (affectionate nicknames based on characteristics). We see them grow and learn as events transpire.

Ali is 15 and lives with his mother Doris and sister Jazz. Doris is a social worker and has an additional part-time job to make ends meet. His father John is not resident, but he is present and an influence in Jazz and Ali’s lives. His “profession” is a small-time hustler which has led to incarceration for him at times. While the parents have little contact and live apart despite still loving each other, there is love in the home and a mother doing a good job of raising her children.

Noodles and Needles are brothers with an entirely different home situation. Needles is the older one, but he has Tourette’s Syndrome. Noodles is one year younger and carries the sometimes onerous burden of caretaker for his brother by default. There is no stable family unit to support them. When their father learned of Needles’ condition, he left the children with the mother, who is unable to cope or to be a real mother to them. Most of the time she’s gone, destination unknown. Needles has a lovely personality, but the syndrome can activate at any time.

The stress and responsibility of his brother’s care weigh on Noodles over time, and he does not always treat his brother well. In short, 3 of the family members are overwhelmed in some way, the 2 adults absent physically and emotionally, while Needles cannot control when his condition will activate. Reluctance to involve the authorities in their lives prevents them from getting official assistance.

The 3 boys meet and become fast friends when the brothers move into the brownstone next door to Ali and his family. Each of them has a special talent. Ali (Allen) is training to learn boxing with a man who lives down the block (hence his nickname Ali). He’s quite good despite having no wish to go pro. Noodles (Roland) has a talent for drawing comic book characters. In another environment, he’d probably have become a graphic artist. Needles is smart and quick to learn. At a time when his syndrome becomes more problematic, Ali’s mother gives him knitting needles (the source of his nickname) and yarn to occupy his hands. He never actually makes anything, but the motion of the knitting helps greatly with his behavior.

While there is a certain amount of bad behavior by some people in the neighborhood, the boys stay away from those people and places. Neighborhood personalities know they are good boys and watch out for them. The man who coaches Ali with his boxing, the barber, and others in his shop are authority figures respected by the boys. An elderly upstairs neighbor helps care for Ali and Jazz when needed. The boys also know that various people along their street watch and would report back to Doris if they saw the boys misbehave. It isn’t hard for them to stay out of trouble.

Most of the book recounts how these people cope and behave on an every-day level. Then temptation raises its ugly head. The boys have an opportunity to attend a party for young adults—a place where they’d clearly be out of their league, where there’d be alcohol, girls, and bad actors. They know it’s wrong, but arrange everything and go anyway. The mistake is taking Needles with them. The people at the party don’t know him or about his syndrome, and when it manifests, he is beaten by those bad actors who think Needles has disrespected them. Ali uses his boxing skills to attack and pull them away so he can rescue a beaten and bloodied Needles.

Of course, this disaster can’t be hidden, and John (Ali’s father) becomes involved in the aftermath. He knows the bad actors will find out who attacked them and come looking for revenge. To prevent harm to his son, John negotiates a peace deal. He gives them his car, his sole asset, to protect his son and ensure there will be no further violence. The threat is taken off the table, and that cycle has been stopped.

Although this book’s target demographic is teen/young adult, I love it and the messages Reynolds communicates in such a positive way. I also love the characters and the compassion with which they are portrayed. While his messages aren’t at all preachy, they are clear and include:

–The importance of FAMILY in a broad sense. These are not just the people we’re related to by blood, but also others whom we pull into our familial circle. We need to support and commit to them; take care of them in whatever positive way is needed. The fact that it’s not always a joy is just part of the experience.

–Young people need to find their talent, whatever it may be. Sometimes it will be obvious (like Noodles’ artistry), while other times they will need help and encouragement to find their unique ability.

–The importance of knowing they are loved must not be underestimated. Whether a young person lives in a nuclear family, an extended multi-generational family, a one-parent home, or other situation, knowing they are loved is paramount.

–Violence is not the answer to conflict. Peaceful ways to resolve issues, to stop the tit-for-tat cycle, CAN be found.

Reynolds’ books clearly touch a nerve among young people (as well as this older one). It’s impossible to know how many of them he’s “converted” to reading by fulfilling his goal of not writing boring books. Along the way, he imparts important life values in a non-preachy fashion that won’t turn young readers away. He is clearly a man who is MAKING A DIFFERENCE to his readers of any age.

–Donna Rueff–