Winner of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent (2015). When I Was the Greatest is a slice-of-life story told by Ali, a 15 year old African American kid living in Brooklyn, NY. Ali has a strong sense of self and is highly aware that the people in his life have influenced who he is. Ali’s mother is a hard-working woman. She works every day, all day, except Sunday to provide for Ali and his younger sister. The three don’t have much, but they have each other, and that includes a lot of love and respect. Ali’s father isn’t completely in the picture, but we learn, as the story progresses, how much he’s willing to give up for his son. Malloy, a legless Vietnam Vet who lives down the block, coaches Ali in boxing and in life. Ali also has a couple of buddies who do not have some of the luxuries Ali has, such as dependable family, and all the basic necessities in life. However, Ali is there for his friends. During the course of the story we see how far Ali is willing to stick his neck out for his friends and the consequences that can bring, both good and bad.
Readers will enjoy a vivid description of daily life on a Brooklyn block, the shenanigans teens get into, and the power of family and friendship. This book is recommended for readers who enjoy Walter Dean Myers and Jacqueline Woodson.