For many of my predominantly white and predominantly rural students in Iowa, the Brooklyn of Jason Reynold’s When I Was The Greatest might as well be a different planet. And sadly, more of my students have probably read books set on other planets than have read books set in neighborhoods like the Bed-Stuy of narrator Ali and his family.
All kinds of kids need all kinds of stories. Stories where they can see themselves, yes, but also stories where they can see our country and our world in all its diversity while understanding the common humanity that binds us. We need books that are both mirrors and windows. This summer, the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign exploded on social media in response to the growing awareness of the LACK of diversity in the publishing world in general and the children and young adult markets in particular. One of the books I learned about through this campaign is When I Was The Greatest, and I urge all who serve teens, whether in the classroom or in a library, to add this book to your collection.
Teenage Ali and his sister Jazz live in Brooklyn with their mother Doris. Though their father John does not live with the family, and has not for some time, he still has a role to play in their lives, a role that grows as the story progresses. Ali long ago made friends with the neighborhood's new kid, dubbed “Noodles” by little sister Jazz, who is also responsible for creating the nickname “Ali” for her brother Allen. Noodles has his own sibling, a brother nicknamed “Needles” by Jazz for the knitting he does. Yes, knitting. Needles has Tourette’s syndrome, and Doris taught him to knit as a way to ease the physical tics that accompany it.
Noodles reads and draws comics, showing a softer side that few other than Ali witness. To most, especially Needles, Noodles flashes a temper, a tongue, and the ‘tough” face he feels his neighborhood demands. Ali remains loyal to his long-time friend, despite his doubts about Noodles’ treatment of his brother and Noodles’ actions toward others. This loyalty faces its ultimate test when Needles is put in physical danger.
When I Was The Greatest, nominated for this year’s Cybils Award in the Young Adult Fiction category, exudes a sense of place, the rhythms of daily life in Bed-Stuy, the sounds of the city. The title is a reference to Muhammad Ali, fitting as young Ali in the book is learning to box and both Alis refuse to let the rest of the world box them into any stereotype of African-American existence.
But like all good stories, Reynold’s novel also resonates in broader themes: The importance of family, what we sacrifice for friends, and how we decide who we want to be. These themes are as real in rural Iowa as they are in Brooklyn, even for some of my students who equate darker skin and “strange” names with being foreign. Not “foreign” as in unknown, but “foreign” as in not American. We need diverse books because students need to know that their America is not all of America (and America is not all of the world), and you need to read When I Was The Greatest because it, too, sings America, and sings it ever so well.