Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

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With a long list of accolades, including the Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Award, and Printz Honor, young adult novel-in-verse Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2017) provides me with a window into a different culture and life from my own as I watch this unique teenager wrestle with internal struggle after his older brother has been shot. For some, such as the incarcerated youth in detention centers whom the author has dedicated this book to, Will Holloman’s story will be a mirror of their own life struggles. For those reasons especially Long Way Down is a necessary and essential part of young adult literature.

Will Holloman begins by insisting his story is true and then narrates his own awakening in more ways than one. In fact, the more I sit here thinking about the novel, the more I see how brilliant the author’s techniques have tied together the themes . Start with “awakening.” The horrific minute one moves from asleep (unconscious) to awake (aware) is surely the rudest “awakening” there is. His older brother, Shawn, is dead. As the title suggests, we can think of this instant awakening as a “long way down.” From dreaming to nightmare. From oblivious to remembering. From bliss to utter devastation. Similarly, as Will Holloman travels from his apartment to the first floor of his building via the elevator, he physically travels a long way down. It’s only a minute. But this entire novel narrates that specific minute he is on the elevator. This journey is Will’s true “awakening.”

As Will travels down the elevator with a gun stuck in his waistband, he is visited by his deceased friends and family. Is this story he says true? Did his visitations from “ghosts” really happen? In novels there is a such thing as fantasy. There are also unreliable narrators. Long Way Down reads like a mix between genres, because this mixing of reality and fantasy is how this experience feels to Will. His journey from top to bottom captures a realistic changing or awakening that can happens to any of us in just a minute. Because Long Way Down is written in verse, the text sounds like natural internal dialogue. Also, there are so many real aspects of his journey: his sweaty palms checking to see if the gun is even loaded. He pisses his pants and the stink wafts through the elevator. These realistic moments mix the imagined (or not?) into the questions going in his mind.

I wasn’t sure I could relate to this novel in verse when I first read the synopsis, and it’s true: I really can’t relate in significant plot-forward ways. I never have even seen a gun, let alone grabbed one from my brother’s drawer and taken it into to find revenge my brother’s death. I’ve never lost a loved one to violence at all. So, it may seem like Will’s life and actions are far removed from mine. I finish the book with more questions than when I began. But there is something so common about him striving to find a purpose and meaning for himself after his brother’s death. Did you notice his name? Jason Reynolds chose “Will Holloman” intentionally. Without his brother, Will feels like a hollow man. Maybe avenging Shawn’s murder with a murder can “fill” that hollowness again. But maybe the bigger question for Will is: Do you have a “will” to keep living, even without your beloved older brother?

We don’t know what Will’s decisions or actions are once he is at the bottom. Jason Reynolds leaves the ending open. The conclusion is not foregone. It almost hurt, not knowing the resolution, having to consider it myself. He’s been symbolically awakened — to the consequences, to the reality of what he would be doing, to the meaning of living. There is the potential to go even farther down: a long way down through the criminal justice system as a young man, nearly an adult. Or, would abandoning his mission for revenge be a “long way down” in his pride of standing up for his brother’s name and reputation?

I hope that every other reader, whether they see this book as a mirror or a window, will give themselves the time to contemplate and reflect on the book as they read as well as after the elevator reaches the first floor. Long Way Down only gets better the more I contemplate it. I anticipate a reread in the future.

I rate Long Way Down, Newbery Honor from 2018, as “fantastic” and say “keep it and read it.”



Get this book at bookshop.org

Reviewed on September 28, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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