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Long Way Down

Long Way Down coverThere’s a weird kind of bookending happening this year; we opened with the biggest buzz for early 2017 books belonging to The Hate U Give and we’re closing 2017 with the biggest buzz for the end of the year going to Long Way Down, two books that look at violence in largely black, urban communities from different directions. While The Hate U Give was about the violence perpetrated on young black men by the system, specifically police, Long Way Down tackles the violence perpetrated on young black men by young black men — which, ok, is still the fault of the system, because systemic racism has a long and ugly reach, but centers the story in a very different place. Bookends. So does that mean that Long Way Down is due for an award of its own?

Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books, October 2017
Reviewed from ARC; final copy also browsed

It’s hard to separate Jason Reynolds from his books, by which I mean he is a charismatic, intelligent author who has put himself forward. He’s likeable and dynamic and says hard things eloquently; we were lucky enough to host him for a class visit in our HS African-American Lit class a few years ago, and each of those students became a fan regardless of having read any of his books. But his first few books, while strong, were clearly the work of a newer author. Then Ghost came last year, and it was clear that Reynolds had matured as a writer, so that the vision and charisma of the author were also present in every page of the text. And now he’s taken that presence to YA, and delivered a powerful, sparse book that hits every point economically and emotionally.

I’m going to work my way from the outside in.

First, this is a stunning piece of packaging; this is a book that begs to be picked up and handled (probably why it was one of two books that sold out on the first day of our book fair last week). And let’s look at that structure: free verse poetry with a new development for each floor of a momentous elevator ride down. The entire book is a descent, a literal and figurative journey. The symbolism might be trite if it weren’t so perfect; instead, there’s a parable quality, enhanced by the limited word count, that makes this journey feel both intensely personal — it’s Will’s story — and also like it could be the story of any boy caught in this endless web of toxic understandings of what it means to be a man and violence begetting violence.

The poetry isn’t particularly remarkable as poetry. But using David Levithan’s “prose with line breaks” framework, this definitely succeeds; the voice feels genuine and the silence between the words makes each word significant, heightening the emotions and the brokenness of Will, mourning both his brother and maybe himself; this is not who he is, but he believes it’s who he needs to be. Will, who loves word play and sees the world in such interesting ways, is a perfect narrator; he’s just a little apart from the scene Shawn is in, but it’s still his world; it’s not easy to pick up the gun to go after Riggs — that’s the way Will stands a little apart — but it’s also what he truly believes he has to do — because that’s the Rules. His attempt to balance is what allows the fragile space for this complicated reflection on the world. Reynolds uses Will’s first person free verse thoughts to paint a portrait that feels more nuanced than you might expect given the spareness of the text.

And the ghosts — they come on to the page, they tell their stories, and in those stories and the way they treat Will, entire lives are revealed. One of my fellow book club librarians compared this to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I absolutely see, but at least for me this never had the schmaltzy feel. It’s too ugly, the litany of violence, and then too moving, once Dani enters; she highlights the price the cycle is taking on the community.

And the ending. The ending is perfect — it’s a question with multiple meanings and layers, and while the reader may believe they know what Will will do, they really don’t; each reader can make up their own mind.

So obviously, I’m convinced this has what it takes to go far at the table. This is a tight, crisp piece of writing that has a depth of commentary on the world — a message, if you will — about the high cost of violence and the need for change, and yet doesn’t sacrifice the narrative to make its point. Can it win? With 6 stars and the NBA longlist and a serious presence on year-end lists all pointing to critical consensus, it’s definitely in the running, and maybe towards the front of the pack. What do you think?

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. The ending begs to be discussed, that is for sure. And it is impossible to not want to scream at Will that he doesn’t have to follow all the “rules”. If only someone would stop following the rules, we wouldn’t be in the fix we are in in some urban settings.

    This is my first Reynolds books so I can’t compare it to any of his prior books, though they have received quite a bit of award-love. In my opinion if a book is written in verse, for it to be an award-winner, the poetry needs to be award-winning as well, and I am not sure that this poetry is that good. The concept, the ghosts, the layers of meaning—fantastic; the poetry —so-so. For this reason I don’t think it will win the top prize, but maybe an honor.

  2. Finally read this and thought it magnificent. To be totally honest I’d been holding off because, based on what I knew about it, figured I needed to be ready emotionally. So now I have and think it is one of the best things Reynolds has done (and I’ve been a great admirer already). The structure worked wonderfully well for me. As for whether it is prose or poetry, all I know is the use of white space, the repeated gut-punching lines, figurative language, sensory touches (especially such visceral ones involving bodily fluids), the tension, the Rules, the visitors, the anagrams (which some writers use in forced ways, but not here), the ending. (Interesting that Reynolds seems to like these sort of endings as he has them in Ghost and Patina too.) I’d have argued for it on Heavy Medal if I’d read it earlier. Seems Printz and Newbery worthy to me.

  3. What a great book. I can imagine this being shared widely among both frequent and occasional readers. Reynolds captures the grit, sorrow, confusion and the rage Will feels and also portrays so many of the characters Will meets on each floor with shades of gray.
    All that said, the earnest nature of the book wore on me a bit. It was so serious – as it needed to be, given the subject – that it sorta lost some steam for me about midway through. And the bleakness of the ride down the elevator made me wonder if there is a limit to the pathos a reader can stand (and believe). So for me, not a perfect book, despite it being one of the best of the year.

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