It’s funny: despite my efforts to read more diverse books, this is actually the first one I’ve picked up with a black boy as the narrator. I’ve read books with gay narrators, intersex narrators, disabled narrators, Latino and Asian and Middle Eastern narrators, but this is the first one with a black narrator.
WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST is the story of Ali, a boy from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. He, his mother, and his sister Jazz live straddling the poverty line, but life is mostly good: he takes boxing lessons, he stays out of trouble, and he’s best friends with his neighbors, Noodles and Needles. (Both got their nicknames courtesy of Jazz).
I don’t know if it’s Ali’s narration or my own preconceived notions, but the threat of violence seemed to hang over WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST like the sword of Damocles. I’m terrified that it’s my own preconceived notions. I used to watch a lot of Law & Order reruns.
The thing is, WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST was so much warmer than that. It was not about gangs, or drugs, or violence. It was about friendship and brotherhood and family.
Ali’s father left when he was a kid—gone to jail for a violent (but thankfully non-deadly) crime, though he’s since been released. And Ali and Jazz still love their father, even if they don’t agree with what he does for a living.
Needles has Tourette’s Syndrome, but everyone in the neighborhood loves him. Everyone except Noodles, who can’t get along with his brother at all.
When Ali and Noodles get invited to the party, it’s on the condition that Needles gets to come, too—and that’s what really sets things in motion, spinning Ali into a direction I expected but with an outcome I didn’t expect at all.
WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST was absolutely lovely: the type of book I certainly need to read more of. We all need our prejudices challenged, especially the ones we don’t realize we are carrying. I am going to keep my eyes peeled for more books like it.