Some parents in New York City, New York have fallen into the age-old trap of judging a book by its cover. Included on the Department of Education’s recommended reading list, Jason Reynold’s award-winning young adult novel When I Was the Greatest has come under attack for depicting a gun crocheted out of colorful yarn on the cover.
Reynold’s book tells the story of three young men coming of age in modern-day Brooklyn and the obstacles and hardships that they face in a city where drugs and guns are present. The book, which won the 2015 Coretta Scott King Award for New Talent, and its anti-violence message have been praised by news sites and the New York Public Library. According to the publisher’s website is written for ages 12 and up (grades 7-12).
Despite critical acclaim, though, when parents saw the book included as part of the DOE’s recommended reading for 7th and 8th graders in the “New York City Reads 365” pamphlet, they immediately voiced their disapproval. “I don’t really think it’s appropriate,” said Charlie Machadio, a grandparent of a New York City public school student, to WPIX. “I don’t really think it’s a good idea. There’s enough guns on the street illegally with kids that belong to gangs and things like that. I wouldn’t want my grandson to learn about that.”
Leah Gunn Barrett, the executive director of New Yorker’s Against Gun Violence, also noted that although the subject matter is relevant to what children in New York might face today, the inclusion still represents a “poor choice” on the department’s part.
It seems that some people are missing the point of the book. The role of gun violence in the story isn’t one of celebration but of passing along information. As one of the characters notes in the book, “A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.” Moreover, according to WPIX and the author, the cover is “meant to be a provocative take on yin and yang: a thing used to bring pain wrapped in something used to provide warmth.” As Reynold’s points out:
The other thing that we wanted the cover to do, was exactly what it’s doing: be something that people have questions about. If a young person sees another young person reading this book, they can’t help but ask what it is. And that’s a good thing.
The knee-jerk reaction that parents are having to the cover of a book overshadows the fact that this is not required reading. “While this book is on a list encouraging daily reading for pleasure and is not mandated, it is an age-appropriate and engaging story, and we are confident students will understand and appreciate its message of nonviolence,” said DOE spokesman Will Mantell.
Some parents are using this inclusion of the title as an opportunity to have these tough conversations about gun violence with their children and express their own concerns that other would attempt to regulate other’s reading choices because the topic makes them uncomfortable.
“It’s an issue that all parents should try to tackle with their children,” said Molly Myers. “And if this book is good at teaching that, then they should embrace that.”
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!