Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. Atheneum, 2017.
Early in my teaching career, I learned a very hard lesson—for a number of students, school is not a priority. This isn’t necessarily because a student is defiant or lazy. Oftentimes, the truth is much sadder. Students might not have adequate food at home, or perhaps they don’t have a home at all. Students might be struggling with mental illness or self-harming behaviors. Students might be grieving the death of a friend or family member. My students grapple with things I can’t imagine, and it’s understandable, then, when English homework falls to the wayside.
Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down, reminded me of this particular fact. In Reynolds’ author bio, he says he is tired of “being around young people who are tired of feeling invisible.” Long Way Down gives voice to the voiceless, and pulls the reader in for a chilling, nail-biting ride.
Fifteen-year-old William—or Will, as he is more commonly known—admires his older brother, Shawn. Shawn taught Will about girls, how to land the perfect swing off the monkey bars, and about the rules that permeate their neighborhood. The first rule is no crying, no matter the tragedy. The second rule is no snitching. Feign ignorance with the police. The third rule is revenge. After Shawn is shot and killed, Will knows he must follow all three rules, including the commandment on revenge. Shawn’s middle dresser drawer is ajar, and Will knows he will find a gun inside.
Will believes he knows who murdered his brother but, as the rules decree, he doesn’t tell the police. Instead, he retrieves Shawn’s gun and boards the elevator in his apartment building. His plans are to confront and shoot his brother’s alleged killer. But, as the elevator descends from the seventh floor to the lobby, Will is confronted by a number of figures from his past. Is he hallucinating? Is he correct on the identity of Shawn’s killer? Will he go through with his plot for revenge?
Verse is a fitting form for this novel. Will’s thoughts are scattered and sometimes incoherent in his grief, and Reynolds’ decision to showcase this through poetry is much more poignant than traditional prose. Without spoiling the book too much, the end message says a great deal about the cyclical nature of violence and the human being’s capability to put a stop to it.
If there are any downsides to Long Way Down, they perhaps lie in the book’s length. Not only is it a short book, but the poems are sparse, barely filling a page. Readers might feel as though some of their questions go unanswered but, again, this is somewhat fitting for the subject matter.
Long Way Down would be a great addition to any curriculum, particularly for those teaching poetry. This novel is chalk full of similes and metaphors and experiments with different poetic forms, including a shape poem. Poetic devices aside, this is a book that resonate with a number of students, from AP-level to reluctant readers. The book will likely lead to difficult—but important—class discussions.