Friday, January 19, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

I know I know...this book would probably fit better under a poetry heading, but it would most likely end up being the only one of its kind on this blog. Poetry has never been my strong suit, so I don't make a habit of reading it, or writing about it. But Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds caught my attention, and given that its primary audience is young adults, and particularly young adults who do not feel seen, I figured I could manage my way through it.

The Situation: Will's older brother Shawn has been shot. The 15 year-old finds it hard to believe, but it's true, and he knows who did it. Where Will lives, The Rules are simple: no crying, no snitching, and get revenge. Since Will knows who killed his brother, the rules say that he is supposed to get them back for what they have done. He knows there is a gun in Shawn's dresser drawer. Does he know how to shoot it? It doesn't matter. He knows what he has to do, so he puts it in his waistband and makes his way out of his apartment building.

The Problem: Will's fairly straightforward goal of finding the guy who killed his brother and doing the same to him is immediately interrupted once he gets onto his apartment building's elevator. In a little over sixty seconds, the elevator will stop six times, with someone new getting on every time. Each person knows both Will and Shawn, or at least knows who they are. However, they are all also dead. Or they are supposed to be. Will remains determined to carry out his plan, though he does wonder if he is losing it. But with the appearance of each new ghost, Will's resolve, as well as his belief that he is doing the right thing, begins to come apart. Turns out he may not have the whole story, and The Rules may not be as important as he always believed.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel written in verse. In other words, it is a collection of poems that, when put together, tell a story. This would appeal immensely to many young readers as it makes for easy reading. And these aren't the type of poems that take a whole lot of analysis in order to get the meaning; although, I imagine many of them could be poured over and tons of hidden meaning could potentially be revealed. Again, poetry is not my strong suit, so I gave up on poetry explication once I finished graduate school. But even for those like me, the themes of gang violence, revenge, generational sin, and what it means to be a man will easily come through. Will is also unfortunate enough to have the past haunt him, but not in a way that means he did something wrong, but perhaps because he is about to.

My Verdict: Even though poetry is my kryptonite, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Even for those who have never been in a situation anywhere close to what Will is going through, his character will be extremely relatable, whether it is the fear, or the insecurity, or the despair, or even the blind resolve despite mounting evidence to the contrary, many of us have felt like Will at some point in our lives. It is that feeling that something needs to be done, and we believe we are the only ones who can do it. Reynolds portrays that feeling of desperation so incredibly well that it is near impossible to judge Will, but only root for him, and hope for him. There is a reason this book was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is a different approach to young adult literature, but a welcome departure to what we are used to seeing.

Favorite Moment: Any time Will does not manage to come off as cool and confident as he would like, especially with a gun stuck in his waistband.

Favorite Character: Buck is the man who took it upon himself to look after Shawn and Will when their father died. Now he continues to do so even though he is dead, as he is the first to visit Will in the elevator.

Recommended Reading: Dear Martin by Nic Stone would be a great follow-up, as would the nonfiction Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.   

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