Needles and Noodles live next door to Ali, the main character in Jason Reynold’s debut novel When I was the Greatest. Unlike Ali, whose mother Doris is strict on him and his younger sister Jazz, Noodles and Needles seems to have little guidance from their mother. Noodles name came from an unfortunate kissing incident he had on his front stoop. The origin of Needles’ nickname is a little more complicated. Needles has Tourette Syndrome and one time during a particularly bad attack Doris gave Needles knitting needles and yarn to see if focusing on knitting would calm him down. It did. After that Needles spends time sitting on his stoop knitting and making up rap lyrics.
Things tend to go okay until Needles, Noodles, and Ali end up getting an invite to a house party from a girl Noodles has a crush on. They go to John, Ali’s dead who is a small time hustler, to get the proper clothes and shoes for a party they are too young to be at. Noodles doesn’t want Needles to come along, but Ali insists. Needles even brings his knitting needles, which factor into a scuffle that breaks out at the party.
When I was the Greatest is a novel about friendship, loyalty, and family. It’s also about when to fight and when to back down, something Ali, who takes boxing lessons but has never done any real boxing, must deal with. This is a wonderful debut from a fresh voice.