"When I Was the Greatest" by Jason Reynolds, Chapters 1–3

June 24, 2018
In his debut novel, award-winning writer Jason Reynolds tells the story of Ali, a teenager who tries to stay out of trouble in his gritty Brooklyn neighborhood. But when one of his friends is attacked, Ali is drawn into a real fight — with real consequences.

Here are links to our lists for the novel: Chapters 1–3, Chapters 4–6, Chapters 7–9, Chapters 10–12, Chapters 13–16

Here are links to our lists for other books by Jason Reynolds: The Boy in the Black Suit, All American Boys, Long Way Down, Ghost, Patina, Sunny, Lu
"But if I got bad breath, forever, then I might not ever be able to kiss the ladies. So, I guess I gotta go with licking the ground, man."
Just saying it made me queasy.
We got bodegas on both ends, which is cool, and a whole bunch of what my mom calls "interesting" folks who live in the middle.
His voice was kind of raspy.
"Ali, can you bring my bread inside!"—I totally forgot!—"And come on and eat before this food gets cold," she said in her usual gruff tone, but then turned toward Noodles, and said all nice and kind, "and you're welcome to come eat too, sweetheart."
It was one of the scenes where Bruce was upset and was turning green and becoming the Hulk. Noodles had literally redrawn the whole thing perfectly, every muscle, every hair.
She said Noodles looked so scared, and that his lips were poking out and puckered so tight that it looked like he was slurping spaghetti.
She said the proper term for it is Tourette syndrome.
She said that what happens is he blurts out all kinds of words whenever his brain tells him to.
Despite the head swipes, Noodles was super-protective over his brother, and paranoid that people were laughing at him.
It was a Sunday, and my mother was by the window and heard a bunch of commotion coming from outside.
You know when you have to smile but you don't want nobody to see you smile, but it almost hurts to hold it in, so it comes out like a weird smirk? Needles did that weird smirk.
I threw out a few suggestions, like the hardware store, or the grocery store, but none of them were really making any sense. Then Noodles had a brainstorm.
They even got a spot that sells TVs, Jamaican flags, leather jackets, and incense all in the same place.
And even though he is always ranting about politics, he's still a cool dude, and everybody respects him because he has the cheapest cuts in town.
chime in
"Oh, Knit Wit, it's right over there. In the middle of the block," the older woman said. She pointed and smiled, and I just smiled back, a little embarrassed.
"Not for us," Noodles chimed in. "For my brother."
size up
I watched as Noodles sized up the yarns to see which black was the best black for Needles.
I wondered if they were just a group of random women or if they were some sort of crew, like a sorority or something.
He wasn't doing a great job at not being suspicious.
It's like he felt tougher whenever he started blabbing about it, gassing his own head up, turning the story into a much bigger deal than it really was.
Noodles tells a group of little kids playing in the hydrant about some stunt he pulled.
"Yes," I replied reluctantly, feeling like I was snitching on my dude, but my mom had a way of getting the truth out of me.
She told me she'd be kidding herself to think otherwise, and that she understood what it was like to be a loyal friend, and that she had bailed my father out time and time again the same way, until she just couldn't do it anymore.
Of course, the money ran out eventually, which meant rent couldn't get paid.
He was drafted. He said back in those days wasn't no black kids just signing up to fight.
When I asked him what he learned from the army, he said he learned discipline, brotherhood, and most importantly, how to box.
The liquor on his breath was always there, just like the tears caked and crusty in the corners of his eyes.
He followed up with, "Now look at them. It's okay. That way the pathetic legless elephant can disappear, and we can get the hell on with it."
It's just a big open space for sparring, and over on the side he's got a few dumbbells, a weight bench, a speed bag, and two punching bags, one hanging from the ceiling and one on a stand.
Malloy barked as I threw my right jab at this kid, Jamaal Crowder.
I guess the stupid yarn situation was still bugging me— distracting me.

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