Last year I heard an interview with Jason Reynolds on NPR talking about his most recent book, Long Way Down. And, while there are many compelling, stunning, unforgettable aspects to this book, Reynolds's reason for writing it, and writing it as a verse novel are what made me certain this was a book I would buy, read and review. When asked why he wrote Long Way Down in the form of poetry, Reynolds answered:
I need my young brothers who are living in these environments, I need the kids who are not living in these environments, to have no excuses not to read the book. The truth of the matter is that I recognize that I write prose and I love prose and I want everybody to read prose, but I'm also not - I would never sort of deny the fact that, like, literacy in America is not the highest, especially among young men, especially amongst young men of color. It's something that we've all been working very hard on. And my job is not to sort of critique or judge that. My job is to do something to help that. And to know you can finish in 45 minutes means the world to me so that we can get more young people reading it and thinking, right, and having discussions about what this book is actually about. You know, we talk all the time about how do books - how can books compete with all the other distractions and, you know, stimuli that exists for young people today? The truth is, is that the best thing we could do is figure out what's working and then translate that to the page. It doesn't mean you have to lose the integrity or the sophistication of your work, but it does mean that you really want to affect change in these young people's lives and they're not reading books. Figure out how to make them read them.
Most of you reading this review probably work with or are parents to kids who read, and read well. Know that these kids are probably in the minority. As Reynolds says, literacy in America is not the highest. In my district, only 40% of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders are reading proficiently at grade level. These numbers reflect national percentages, according to assessments from 2015. To me, this is a national crisis on par with childhood poverty, opioid addiction, gun violence and pay equity for women. I am grateful to Reynolds both for speaking and writing to this crisis and I hope that Long Way Down gets into the hands of the young readers he wrote it for. However, those young readers who need it most, including the, "brothers and sisters in detention centers around the country," that this book is dedicated to, are also probably those with little or no access to new books, or any books. Studies have found that two out of three children living in poverty have ZERO books in their home. This means that, of the 13,253,000 million children living in poverty in America (poverty is defined as an annual income below $24,563 for a family of four) 8,835,334 children are living in homes with no books in them.
"Sixty seconds. Seven floors. Three rules. One gun." Those are the words that best distill the plot of Long Way Down, the story of Will Holloman, a fifteen-year-old on his way to avenge the killing of his older brother, Shawn. Using spare, powerful, raw writing, Reynolds first captures the emotions of seeing his brother shot in the street after returning with special lotion for their mother's eczema. The three rules of Will's neighborhood are, no crying, no snitching and revenge. There are lots of rules in Will's neighborhood - rules for what happens after someone gets shot, rules for what to do in the elevator. Will follows them all. It's what you do. After Shawn's murder, Will finds his gun and, early the next day, heads out to kill the man who killed his brother.
The Hollomans live on the eighth floor and most of Long Way Down takes place as Will rides the elevator. Traveling down, the elevator stops at each floor and someone from his past, all the victims of gun violence, gets in. The ghosts talk to Will, some chiding him, some surprising him, some scaring him. All talk about their deaths, the rules and the gun he has in his waistband. As each new ghost enters the elevator, details of Will's life unfold and connections are made. With few words, Reynolds's vivid characters fill the pages, inhabiting the cramped elevator. Finally, on the second floor, Shawn gets on the elevator. Silent, and, unlike the other ghosts, wearing the bloodstained clothes he died in. Will talks to Shawn, tries to get him to talk, both boys breaking down in tears, breaking the first rule. Reynolds ends Long Way Down ambiguously, forcing readers to think, to grapple with what they have just read.
The superb design of Long Way Down must be noted. Sadly, I couldn't find any images to share with you so I'll have to describe the pages. Each page looks something like the old, abused, shiny metal wall of an elevator. Varying shades of grey, some mottled, some splashed across the page like scratch marks, make up the background for for the words on the page. And the images don't seem to repeat. This adds to the experience of reading Long Way Down, the words, the bursts of emotions, and the walls of the elevator surrounding them, intensify the experience.
More books by Jason Reynolds