It’s a tale as old as time: teens going to parties far beyond their years. For this Johnson County reader, the interest in Jason Reynold's When I Was the Greatest lies in the microclimate of Bed-Stuy in New York City.
For Ali and his friends Needles and Noodles, an invitation to one of MoMo’s infamous parties must be accepted, for it may never come again. At fifteen, the boys don’t belong there, and they realize it in short order when a fight breaks out and they all, but especially Ali, end up on the most wanted list of some dangerous dudes.
The ensuing events bring Ali and his family closer together, some much-needed self-awareness for Noodles, and understanding between Needles and Noodles. All ends better than can be expected, but not as well as I had hoped.
Even as When I Was the Greatest has been sanitized for a younger audience, it gently illustrates the differences between a suburban, middle-class lifestyle and an urban, poor experience. Ali, Needles, and Noodles live close enough to talk through walls, are left mostly unsupervised, and rarely cross the bridge to Brooklyn or even the street that divides the gentrified homes from their own rental brownstones. They rarely use their “government names” and are constantly exposed to hardships unique to the inner city.
When I Was the Greatest opens a window to an American experience so different from, and yet also quite the same as, my own. It's great for showing younger readers how other communities work together.