When I Was the Greatest – Jason Reynolds

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when

Ali (Allen) lives in Brooklyn – not quite the worst part but far from the best.  His dad is barely around, but when he is he is present so it’s not a story of a poor minority neighborhood, but there are struggles, drugs, and crime.  Ali has a good neighborhood life: devoted single mom, old soul little sister, and two best friends – Noodles and Needles.  These nicknames (Ali, Noodles, Needles) were given to the 15 year old boys by Jazz, Ali’s little sister, who finds an unique quality for each in which to give the names.  Needles has Tourette Syndrome in an area where hospitals are not frequented because people choose to pay the rent over a hospital bill.  So he has never had medical or therapeutic help and is unmediated.  The plot builds to where you know at some point the rough neighborhood will overpower the niceties of Ali’s family life.

This isn’t a ghetto story or a gangster story, but one in which the plot becomes more serious as it continues.  It is a relief that at the climax, violence is not seen as the resolution.

This is up for the Arkansas Teen Book Award and while it’s a good story, and possibly even some group of readers could relate, it doesn’t leave me with anything to think about later.  Nor do I feel that it is any different than a book centered around kids living in a bad neighborhood trying their best to be good.  What is different is that Ali is mature and Needles has Tourettes.   Mental illness is accepted as part of life by the neighbors, but also addressed as an issue that makes life challenging and hinders relationships.

In the end – I’m glad no one is killed as bad groups of people, guns, and being “hunted” are plot points, but I also don’t think it’s award worthy.

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