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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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