Family is family. You can’t pick them, and you sure as hell can’t give them back.”
In When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, fifteen-year-old Ali is happy with his family. He loves his mom, even if she’s gone most of the time, working hard to provide for their family. His little sister Jazz is pretty cool too. She’s responsible and serious, like she’s 10 going on 30. But she helps Ali out—cooks him dinner and does his chores to keep him out of trouble. Even Ali’s dad is a good guy. He’s made some bad choices in life. He robbed a few stores, shot someone, and ended up in prison. He’s out now, and doesn’t live with them. But he still checks in on his kids. And Ali’s pretty sure his parents still love each other. His mom just can’t put up with his dad’s stuff anymore.
Ali’s mother warns Ali that a day will come when he can no longer put up with his best friend Noodles’ “stuff” either. Noodles and his brother Needles are Ali’s next door neighbors. Though Ali has always played it straight, Needles often pushes the limits in their Bed Stuy, New York neighborhood—talking smack, giving major attitude, and treating his older brother Needles like he’s worthless. Needles has Tourette’s Syndrome, which he can control when he’s got knitting needles and yarn in his hands. So if everyone else can treat Needles with kindness, why can’t Noodles? Ali thinks that even though they are brothers, Noodles would gladly give Needles back if he could.
When Ali and the brothers manage to get invited to a secret party, they spend the week getting ready, knowing only the coolest people from the neighborhood will be there. Along the way, Ali begins to question his friendship with Noodles. Can he continue to up with his friend’s “stuff?” When the party doesn’t end well, Ali is forced to make a split-second choice. Where do his loyalties lie?
In this close look at friendship, loyalty, responsibility and family, Reynolds creates a realistic world full of grey areas. Sometimes the role models and heroes aren’t who you’d think they are. Sometimes a good choice brings more trouble than a bad decision. And sometimes the people you surround yourself with make your life harder and not better.
Reviewed by Erin, CLP-Allegheny