By Jason Reynolds
Review by Nalani Stewart
Jason Reynolds held nothing back in his 2017 Edgar Award Winner for Best Young Adult Fiction free verse novel, Long Way Down, published by Simon & Schuster. Reynolds suspends us in one small moment—a sixty second elevator ride down—where a young boy, Will, must decide whether he is going to murder the person who killed his brother. Highlighting the situations that many people “in detentions centers around the country,” face, Reynolds puts Will in an environment where there are rules that people have to follow. The code of conduct him and his community abide by are strict, the main three rules being “no crying,” “no snitching,” and “always seek revenge.” Will is met on the elevator at each stop by people from his life, friends and family that make him question whether or not he should follow the rules and kill or look for another path.
The story begins with Will, a young boy who is out with his brother, Shawn. On their way back from the store to get their mother’s “special lotion,” Shawn is shot and killed. Will is heartbroken and devastated at the loss of his brother but doesn’t let himself break rule number one. He finds a gun in Shawn’s dresser, and starts on a path to finish rule number three, “seek revenge.” With the gun sticking out of the waistband of his jeans, he enters the elevator and presses the button down. The elevator stops on each floor, letting in person after person from Will’s life, the first being Buck. Will finds out that Buck is the one that gave Shawn the gun shoved in his waistband. Will learns more and more about the story he thought he knew, and how he is connected to each and every person on that elevator.
Reynolds creates a space for readers to think about the consequences of their actions, especially those that involve the loss of a life whether it be someone else’s or their own. Long Way Down breaks the mold of the conventional “let me teach you a lesson” story with Reynold’s free verse form and complex characters. Buck, Dani, Uncle Mark, Pop, Frick, and Shawn, all ghosts from Will’s past, don’t force their opinions on him. Instead, their presence makes him, and the reader, question their actions, creating seeds of doubt in the back of his mind. They tell him their stories, cracking the story that he thought he knew into millions of pieces. Reynold’s ends the story by asking “just two words, like a joke he’d been saving. YOU COMING?,” leaving the reader wondering if the story really ends. Reynold’s lets the stories of people in communities like these be heard, and although he doesn’t seem to be condoning this behavior, he does a great job of explaining the reasoning behind these crimes, writing:
Another Thing About Rules
They weren’t meant to be broken.
They were meant for the broken
to follow. (35)
Reynolds shows the reader that these rules that seem to have been created in order to prove oneself or validate them is the only way situations like these have been handled and are the reasoning behind so many deaths.
This brilliant novel asks readers to confront their own biases and question the cycle of violence and who it has an impact on. Reynold’s characters haunt the reader well after they finish the book, leaving them wondering whether or not they are a product of the world that they grew up in or whether or not they have the choice to forge their own path. So, you coming to read Long Way Down?
Check out the Authors Page here:
NPR Interview with Jason Reynolds here:
Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2017.