When I Was the Greatest
by Jason Reynolds
This funny, gritty, tender story follows three young men growing up in Bed-Stuy, navigating the pressures and tensions that would pull them up or drag them under as they make their way to manhood. There’s Ali, bright, respectful and curious; Noodles, tight, irascible, and full of bravado; and his brother Needles, sweet, fragile, and genius. Needles struggles with Tourette’s, a syndrome his neighborhood doesn’t really understand, and finds solace in knitting (Ali’s mother’s very good idea), something else not everybody gets. Ali and Noodles have his back, until one night, at a house party, all hell breaks loose, and everything breaks apart.
There is so much to love here. The crisp writing crackles with wit and rings with authenticity. The exploration of maleness, and the ways in which young men are called to define themselves, is bare and nuanced. Every single character lives and breathes in three dimensions. But for our playing card purposes, it is these boys’ inextricable relationship that beats at this marvelous novel’s heart. Theirs is a special bond, and no matter what comes at them, they belong to one another.
For those looking for an especially immersive and gratifying experience, I recommend Random House Audio’s extraordinary audiobook recording, narrated by J.B. Adkins.