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.