Thursday, November 6, 2014

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds: Book Review

When I Was the Greatest
Author: Jason Reynolds
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014
Age: 12 up, Young Adult
Pages: 232

Fifteen-year-old Allen, or Ali, as his eleven-year-old sister Jazz nicknamed him, lives in the rough Brooklyn district of Bed-Stuy, a black ghetto neighborhood dominated by gangs, guns, and drugs. Ali's dedicated mom, Doris, works hard to keep Ali and Jazz out of trouble, in spite of their dad’s absence, who only occasionally visits. It helps that Doris is a social worker. She knows how to keep her kids on track, even the two neighbor boys, Noodles and Needles, whose mother is mostly absent and dad is long gone. 

Needles has Tourette’s Syndrome, a strange condition that causes his arms to flail unexpectedly and curse words to fly out of his mouth. Noodles struggles with caring for his brother alone and deals with a lot of anger. Ali is really his only friend. Meanwhile, Doris discovers that learning how to knit eases the symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome. Needles (as nicknamed) takes up knitting and the effect is rather dramatic, enough so that when Ali and Noodles learn of a party, Needles is also invited. 

They have to lie about their age to attend the 'over eighteen' party, and things go bad from there. Needles has an attack and accidentally stabs someone with his knitting needle. A fight breaks out. Ali dives into the brawl, while Noodles freezes on the sideline and does nothing to help his brother. Fortunately, Ali’s boxing skills help him beat off two guys. Word gets out after the fight that the two guys are now looking for him. Ali’s dad gets involved and prevents any further bloodshed. Meanwhile, Noodles must deal with his failure. The friendship and family loyalty are thus tested but forgiveness triumphs in the end. 

There is much to love in Reynold’s book, its authentic language and introduction to black ghetto culture, for one, but character voice and development surpasses all. The side characters are just as interesting.
Further, I was not familiar with Tourette's Syndrome at all. I love that Needles's control of his condition is helped when he takes up knitting, despite causing him so much trouble at the party. Reynolds has a way of pulling things together at the end, where what this book also does well, is show the power of family. 

Copyright 2014 © Sharon M. Himsl


  1. What a unique story and I am certain research was done about the knitting to help people with this condition. Nice critique

  2. I agree. I thought the author was pretty clever in making this part of the plot.


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