Audiobook Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Audiobook Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason ReynoldsWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Narrator: J. B. Adkins
Length: 6 hrs, 3 mins
Published by Listening Library on April 8, 2014
Genres: Contemporary
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher
AmazonThe Book DepositoryAudible

In Bed Stuy, New York, a small misunderstanding can escalate into having a price on your head—even if you’re totally clean. This gritty, triumphant debut captures the heart and the hardship of life for an urban teen.

A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.

Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.

And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.

Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should've been—where the people aren't so friendly, and even less forgiving.

When I Was the Greatest is one of those hidden gems. I would never have picked it up were it not for April’s review full of praise. Much as I love diversity, this really did not look or sound like a Christina book. I mean, the cover has a gun on it and the blurb is about how gritty the book is, so I’m thinking something about gangs. The fact that there are characters named Noodles and Needles also would have turned me off to the book. Trust me, though, when I say that this book is amazing, and that I’m glad a reviewer I trust as much as I trust April made me try a book I wouldn’t ordinarily.

As ever with audio, I can’t really say whether I would have enjoyed the book as much in print. All I know for sure is that the audiobook was perfect. I listened to it in just two days, which speaks to its quality. J. B. Adkins does a completely brilliant job narrating as Ali, a fifteen year-old Brooklynite. He sounds friendly, approachable and intelligent. His voice even does a sort of squeaky thing sometimes that really sells the youth of the character. Adkins made the novel come alive in a very real way.

First, let’s talk about the names. Ali, Noodles and Needles are none of them the actual names of these boys. All three are nicknames given to them by Ali’s younger sister, Jazz, for hilarious reasons. When I Was the Greatest is the story of these three boys, and centers on family and friendship. It’s really not all that gritty. It’s heart-warming and beautiful, in fact. I mean, yeah, there’s some dark stuff that happens and goes on in their neighborhood, but their lives are mostly happy.

That’s what I loved most about Reynolds’ novel. It’s so completely not stereotypical, not what I was expecting from the cover and the blurb. Ali lives with his mother and sister. His parents have been separated since his father went to prison when the kids were young. Ali’s mom, Doris, works a lot to earn enough money to support the family. Eleven year-old Jazz cooks the family’s meals and both kids bring in what money they can. From that, you might make some assumptions about the people in this family, and probably some of them would be wrong.

Doris and John are actually much more involved parents than those in most YA novels. They’re not perfect, but what parent is in the real world? Their love for their children is clear. Plus, I thought it was awesome how amicable the relationship is between Doris and John. They maintain affection for one another, but don’t live together because John hasn’t managed to straighten himself out. There is just so much love in this family. Both Jazz and Ali love their parents, and they love each other. Basically every scene between the family members gave me major feels.

Noodles and Needles also have family issues, coming from a more broken home. Their mother’s almost never around, and, without the support of Ali’s family, I’m not sure if they would get fed. Needles, the elder brother, has Tourette’s syndrome, and always brings knitting with him because it helps keep him calm. The way that people react to Needles is interesting. Most people treat him with a bit more kindness than usual, but otherwise like an ordinary guy, but his younger brother Noodles makes a big deal out of Needles’ syndrome. One of the main thrusts of the story deals with Noodles needing to come to terms with his brother.

The cover of When I Was the Greatest is misleading. Guns hardly enter into the story at all. Reynolds’ book is a lovely tale of family and friendship, and I urge you to give this book a chance, because it’s not getting nearly the hype it deserves.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

Seriously, read it.

Seriously, read it.

20 responses to “Audiobook Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds”

  1. Ellis says:

    Okay, so I just listened to the audio sample on Ammy (hence the delay re: commenting, although part of that also has to do with the fact that I had to step away from the computer for a bit due to Megara’s attitude) and YES THE SQUEAK. LIKE VERY MUCH. I was already lollerskating over him sassing his mother because he wouldn’t have to pay more for his food if a white person suddenly walked into the restaurant or something. Again, like very much. So, in the ever so eloquent words of Megasus, WANT.
    Ellis recently posted…How to (Pronounce) Dutch (1) – Vowels & DiphthongsMy Profile

  2. Bonnie says:

    Glad to know the cover is misleading because I completely overlooked this one without even reading the summary. But seriously. Is that supposed to be a crocheted gun? lol My library only has this in print but I think I’ll still be giving this one a shot.
    Bonnie recently posted…Early Review – The Sea Garden by Deborah LawrensonMy Profile

  3. Ellis says:

    That meme is entirely accurate, though it would be dronken. Yes, I’m talking to myself again. Hello, comment section. How you doin’?
    Ellis recently posted…How to (Pronounce) Dutch (1) – Vowels & DiphthongsMy Profile

  4. YES.


    I am seriously so happy that you loved a book that I love because you never know how things like that will play out. I kind of having a feeling that this is one book that really does do better via audio than print. I also think because I got the email with this audiobook that I want to re-read it via audio. It’s only like 6 hours, that’s easily a day or two of listening which isn’t so bad in the long run.

    Also, yes yes yes to the family dynamics in this book AND DIVERSITY.

    And yeah, I think that while the cover isn’t totally representative of the book, I like the significance of the crochet.
    April Books & Wine recently posted…The Orphan Of Awkward Falls | Keith Graves | Book ReviewMy Profile

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