On My Bookshelf: When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds

August 10, 2020

The basic plot from Amazon: 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.

In When I Was The Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Ali, Noodles, and Needles are friends who get into trouble over their heads when they attend a party for an older crowd in another neighborhood. Noodles must come to terms with how he treats his brother Needles and Ali must turn to his father for help. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
Why I liked it: Is there anything that Jason Reynolds has written that isn't pure gold? When I Was The Greatest was Reynolds's debut novel, but you'd never guess that. His characters are complex and could walk right off the page into real life.

Ali, Noodles, and Needles are friends who get into trouble over their heads when they attend a party for an older crowd in another neighborhood. Noodles must come to terms with how he treats his brother Needles and Ali must turn to his father for help.

I appreciate Reynolds's portraits of Black men like Ali, his father, Noodles, and Needles, who are not perfect, but are still admirable in many ways. He also gracefully deals with uncomfortable topics like past incarceration and Tourette syndrome. there also are not enough books that center around Black male friendships.

Classroom application: You can't go wrong recommending a Jason Reynolds book to your students. I love his Track series and As Brave As You for my sixth graders. They are full of humor and characters who have struggles, but could also be role models because of their strong values.

All American BoysLong Way DownThe Boy in the Black Suit, and this one, When I Was The Greatest are amazing reads for upper middle school and high school with anti-violence themes that young people need to hear, written in a way that makes them think rather than feel like they are being preached at.

Reynolds's books also make great mentor texts for examples of character description and dialogue, and could be examined during writing lessons.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of When I Was The Greatest for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


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