When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

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when-i-was-the-greatestWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum, 2014
Audiobook read by J.B. Adkins

This award-winning slice of life from a rundown block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is chock full of heart. 16 year-old Allen Brooks aka Ali, is the narrator and our guide to his friends, family, and neighbors, and the events of one summer.

With a meandering and leisurely plot, the author focuses on creating fully rounded, authentic, endearing, and sometimes flawed, primary and secondary characters. Ali himself has been training with boxing coach Joe Malloy for years – hence his nickname – but is too scared to actually enter a fight. He has an inner moral compass, strength, and light, that makes you pull for him all the way. And you can see the roots of this integrity from his family – Doris the strict matriarch, Jazz, his younger sister with an old soul, and John his estranged and still loving Dad.

Also central are the two brothers who live in a broken down apartment next door: Noodles is Ali’s best friend and is full of anger and pride, and Needles, a gentle spirit with Tourette’s Syndrome, who manages his outbursts by knitting.

After a relaxed introduction and tour of the neighborhood, the narrative focuses on the boys going to an illicit, adults-only party. It’s punching way above their weight, and what happens there sets the course for the rest of novel.

But really, the plot is not the point. Though there is an ominous gun on the cover, albeit one in a crocheted cover, it is not the sort of ‘urban fiction’ (a label which I find patronizing) with gangs and gunfights. Instead we are shown the tight knit love, family ties, and loyalty of real, sometimes troubled, people.

This is a character-driven novel which is not usually my cup of tea, but listening to it was a delightful and engrossing experience. J. B. Adkins reads with a vivacity, humor, and innocent excitement that brings all the characters to rich life, though I somewhat question the way he reads Needles to make him sound a little simple, but maybe that’s the way it’s written.

This is my first Jason Reynolds novel, and as he has several other YA books about the contemporary black experience, it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.

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