Written by Assistant Middle School Dean Suzanne Leake and her literacy students: Jesse GB, Ben YK, Matthias C, Mia L, Jessie S, Joseph DS, Ameena B, Matteo N, Oskar W, Sander W.
On the evening of November 17, students from Middle School Head Teacher Suzanne Leake’s literacy groups were invited to click on a Zoom link leading to a Greenlight Books virtual event for the debut of the graphic novel Long Way Down, written by renowned author and award recipient, Jason Reynolds. This new iteration of the book is illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, a graphic novelist, painter, illustrator, and graphic designer. As the meeting opened, those students who were able to attend were greeted by Jason’s face, which they recognized from an article assigned prior to reading the book, and Danica’s who was new to everyone with the exception of Jessie S. who later recognized her as her former art teacher.
The students began their 2020-2021 literacy year with this novel in verse which has been named a Newbery Honor book, a Printz Honor Book, and best young adult work by the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards. As Fall crept in, the group journeyed with Will, the protagonist of the story, as he descends floors in a time-warped elevator ride while grappling with thoughts of revenge and justice for the murder of his brother, Shawn. Will’s environment prescribes a set of rules that must be followed which inevitably create an endless cycle of violence. He is forced to deal with his mixed emotions while facing the ghosts of victims he has known throughout his fifteen years in this “elevator=coffin.”
The students’ opinions of the novel are overwhelmingly positive as stated in their book reviews, and the anticipation grew as news of the graphic novel event spread that morning.
–Reynolds’s writing style is poetic, smooth, and full of detail. – Mia L
-The way Jason Reynolds tells the story is very enjoyable. He writes it in a long, poetic form with only a few words on each page. – Jesse G
-Reynolds’ use of metaphors is genius and spot on. – Ben YK
-This story is able to touch the readers and help them to feel empathy towards the characters, which can be hard to get a reader to feel from a book. – Ameena B
-Jason Reynolds has written this book in a way that makes the reader curious about the things that are unfolding. – Jessie S
-Reynolds educates his readers that this type of murder solves no problems, and will place you into greater danger. – Joseph DS
-Jason Reynolds describes feelings perfectly, and you can easily imagine the situation and setting. – Sander W
–Long Way Down is a fantastic selection for teens and adults. – Matteo N
-I found the way he wrote it surprising because he made the characters very relatable and realistic to others. He allows people who don’t have that perspective to view it in a different way. – Oskar W
-If you are looking for a short book that gives you suspense this is your book since it has tons of it. – Matthias C
Listening to the questions being asked by the host enabled the students to learn things about the collaborative process and to craft questions of their own. They learned that building the relationship between author and illustrator is a tricky process, but that Jason placed his trust in Novgorodoff and let her drive the project with her own vision. He sees graphic novels as an American fine art form. Reynolds also said he will apply the same approach when the film is in development which sent excitement through the chat. Attendees were also able to ask questions and MMFS students shined in the Q & A with questions such as whether or not we will ever know Will’s decision at the end of the book. Our resident student artists were curious about the medium used to create the images, and Mia’s guess was confirmed. Watercolors bring the ethereal, ghostly images to life.
Reynolds had much to say about the images and why he felt they were perfect for the story. Although one of his pet peeves is the inclusion of maps in books, he felt that the map of the neighborhood is an extraordinary addition to the story because Novgorodoff added just enough detail to highlight Will’s day-to-day travels. He also appreciated that some pages eliminate the “hard, black cells” which we see in most graphic novels, and that every image serves the narrative perfectly because they are the outward expression of the violence and pain suffered by the characters.
Attendees wanted to know if this story is a reflection of personal experience, and Reynolds confirmed that the character, Shawn, is in fact a childhood friend who died as a result of gun violence at the age of nineteen. This led to the most important question; why did Reynolds write this story in verse, and then share it in graphic form? The students learned that the themes of violence and masculinity are important to the author, and while this story may be familiar to some, he wanted to make it accessible to everyone. He considered that everyone should be able to read it, and diverged from the original prose manuscript.
Jason Reynolds may not be the most talked about author, but he writes in an admirable fashion using his background, life experiences, and personality to create his stories. This graphic novel is a perfect example. The novel allows you to put yourself in other people’s shoes and brings you along the journey. Danica Novgorodoff captures the images precisely as if you are watching a movie. As a result, this book impacts you in manys ways. Reynolds has shined a light on gun violence, and provides a closer perspective on communities that struggle with what to do under these circumstances. The students gained greater insight into the story, and left feeling exhilarated and informed.