When I Was the Greatest
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that When I Was the Greatest shows in fine detail how Allen, a teen boy in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, needs his father's help when some local thugs set out for revenge. Despite its slang and swagger -- "s--t" appears in the third paragraph -- the book minimizes sex, drugs, and violence and maximizes affection and dependability. When I Was the Greatest might appeal to a teen who knows, or wants to know, the pressures that shape the lives of the working poor. But, for all its social realism, the storytelling by this first-time author is clumsy. When the climax of this melodrama takes place offstage, the emotional charge fizzles.
What's the story?
Fifteen-year-old Allen Brooks, nicknamed Ali for his boxing skill, befriends two new kids on his block in Brooklyn's tough Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The younger of the two has Tourette's syndrome, which embarrasses his older brother to the point of lashing out. After Ali comes to his new friend's rescue at a party, out-boxing two thugs, they put out the word that they will take revenge. Will Ali's estranged dad step in to save his son? The conclusion gives Ali "one of the best days of my life."
Is it any good?
Although some young readers will be comfortable with the cartoonish characters, others may be disappointed when the story's climax takes place offstage and any chance for a big ending goes poof. This debut novel also rides high on the shoulders of cliche: the mom who works two jobs and reigns with tough love, the whip-smart little sis who gives everyone a cute nickname (the neighbor boys are Needles and Noodles). Details about life in tough central Brooklyn are well played, though.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about how, in Bed-Stuy, the barbershop is an old-fashioned chat room. Are there any comparable gathering spots in your neighborhood? How does it differ from an online forum?
Kendall makes his living doing odd jobs for people at half-price. What does that say about Bed-Stuy?
Why does it feel good to have a nickname that you like?