By Leonel Henriquez
“Long Way Down,” a novel that examines life in urban areas from the perspective of William, a black teenage male, has soared to the top of the Young Adult Reader’s list. Released in October 2017, the novel is National Book Award Finalist and John Newbery Medal winner Jason Reynolds’ eighth book, and his fifth in the last three years.
It chronicles a day in the life of 15-year-old William the day after his older brother Shawn is shot and killed. William’s life is actually an allegory, representing lives broken in part by the ongoing cycle of a drug-driven neighborhood economy, gang affiliation, and gun violence that plagues many of the youth and minority communities in large urban centers like Newark, Philadelphia, New York City, and Detroit.
Several things make the novel unique. It is written entirely in verse as a lyrical tale similar to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The author also engages the reader by using anagrams and words to create shapes, at one point covering a page with a question mark.
The author’s uncomplicated language and its creative presentation illuminate how the parameters of the character’s world are detailed by the rules of the disenfranchised drug- and violence-riddled neighborhood. For example:
1. Crying. Don’t. No matter what. Don’t.
2. Snitching. Don’t. No matter what, Don’t.
3. Revenge. If someone you love gets killed, find the person who killed them and kill them.
The heart of the story is how William encounters the ghosts of others in his life that were also shot to death, including three family members, his father, his uncle Buck, and his brother, along with William’s friend Dani.
One thing the book emphasizes most is how the rules of life depend on the environment in which people live. William faces a choice between living by the rules or recognizing that he could do his small part in breaking the cycle of gun violence that engulfs the neighborhood and its residents. The ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering what happens next, and which would be the correct course of action if they were in his shoes.
This book is more than just about the rules. It also explores the variables that allow the continuum of violence from generation to generation. Beyond that it is about the heart and soul of a brother-to-brother relationship, the agony shared by their family and community as a result of violence and the questions of what to do next in the face of pain and adversity. Overall this novel should be considered a must read for readers of all ages.