82 pages 2 hours read

Jason Reynolds

When I Was the Greatest

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


When I Was the Greatest, published in 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, is the debut novel by award-winning young adult fiction writer Jason Reynolds. It tells a nuanced and often emotional coming-of-age story in a low-income and predominantly Black New York borough. This is not a romanticized portrait but rather an earnest one that does not shy away from representing the harsher effects of poverty alongside heartfelt depictions of friendship, family, and community. The result is a story that captures the multidimensional nature of life in African American communities.

Reynolds was born in Washington, DC, and raised in nearby Oxon Hill, Maryland. He wrote as a rapper and poet, publishing numerous works of poetry before publishing When I Was the Greatest. Reynolds writes novels, short stories, and poems that examine the experiences of young adults and middle graders. He writes stories that these age groups can identify with to encourage them to become more avid readers. He regularly hosts reading events for young people that are well attended, lively, and engaging—a sign of how well his stories are received. Critics have also shown appreciation for his work, awarding When I Was the Greatest a series of honors, most notably the ALA Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent and the CBC Children’s Choice Book Award. In September 2021, the Library of Congress extended his appointment as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature to a record third term.

Plot Summary

Ali, who is almost 16, lives with his mother Doris and younger sister Jazz in an apartment in Bed-Study, Brooklyn. Doris primarily works as a social worker and has a second job in a department store to support her family. Ali and Jazz’s parents are separated because Doris refuses to put up with their father John’s stealing and repeated imprisonment. He is still present in their lives and occasionally visits and shares money with Doris.

Two brothers, Noodles and Needles, move into the apartment building next door and form a close friendship with Ali. Noodles is rash and has a petty criminal streak, but Ali enjoys his company. Needles, the older brother, has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes him to twitch and yell obscenities. Although it initially seems strange, it does not bother Ali, and they spend most of their days hanging out together on the stoop in front Ali’s apartment.

The boys finally secure an invite to the neighborhood’s most exclusive party and go on a mission to get fresh haircuts and cool outfits to look their best. With almost no money, Ali turns to his father to provide the three friends with clothes from his collection of stolen apparel. John agrees, on the condition that Ali texts him to check in at the beginning and end of the night. The boys make it to the party looking their very best, and it is as amazing they imagined it would be. The night sours, however, when there is a fight and Needles is badly beaten. Ali jumps in to protect him, but Noodles just stands there and lets it all happen. This fractures the boys’ close bonds of friendship as well the brothers’ relationship with each other.

In the aftermath of the party, Ali struggles to understand Noodles’s inaction while also dealing with injuries he sustained in the fight. He must also face the consequences of his mother finding out he went to a party she never would have allowed him to attend. Though Ali is punished for this stunt, his family grows closer; recognizing how John supported and protected Ali during recent trials, Doris allows him to stay at the apartment. At the same time, Needles must cope with intense physical wounds as well as emotional pain, and Noodles must recognize and learn to move past his resentment toward and poor treatment of his brother. While separated, the boys explore what it means to be family, and what true friendship looks like, before finding their way back to sitting and joking together on the stoop.