When I Was the Greatest

Book review by
Joe Applegate, Common Sense Media
When I Was the Greatest Book Poster Image
Swaggering but sentimental story about loyalty.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A reader learns about Tourette's syndrome and how one of the characters learns to cope with his condition.

Positive Messages

Many aspects of social cohesion -- friendship, kinship, neighborliness, and simple affection -- are shown to be necessary to cope with the disintegrating pressures of poverty. The Brooks family care for one another, from youngest to oldest, and their caring not only keeps them together but gives them the foundation for helping neighbors and even strangers. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

They're cliches for a reason -- they always come through. There's the mom who works two jobs and keeps an eagle's eye on her kids; the dad whose wanderings end when his son needs his help; and the old boxing coach who insists on discipline and commitment. 


Some punches are thrown at a party. Ali, the 15-year-old protagonist who gets his nickname from his boxing skills, wins the day but hurts his hand. A handgun is seen but not used. There's no bloodshed. 


Allen, 15, meets an older girl at a party. They kiss and begin to fumble toward sex, which Allen finds frightening. Just when the girl produces a condom, they're interrupted by the sound of fighting in the next room. 


"S--t" appears a handful of times, often from the character who has Tourette's syndrome.  

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Booze and pot make a perfunctory appearance at a party. None of the main characters uses drugs.

What 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. 

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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.

Talk to your kids 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?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories

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