long way down: the graphic novel

I’ve been part of the same book club (FYA, DC chapter) for 10?? years now, and I’ve made some really fantastic reading friends in that time. I am only an occasional attendee at this point, but when I do make it it’s nice to just slot right in and chat about books with people who get my reading taste. For May we read Long Way Down, and to prepare I listened to the audiobook, narrated by author Jason Reynolds. The audiobook is just SO GOOD, I thought that there was no way that the newly-released graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, could top it. However, after reading and thinking about Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel, I’ve revised my opinion. Both the audiobook and the graphic novel are brilliant ways to tell a story that is the same at its core, but different in execution.

Jason Reynolds's Newbery Honor, Printz Honor, and Coretta Scott King Honor–winning, #1
New York Times bestselling novel Long Way Down is now a gripping, galvanizing graphic novel, with haunting artwork by Danica Novgorodoff.

Will's older brother, Shawn, has been shot.
Will feels a sadness so great, he can't explain it. But in his neighborhood, there are THE RULES:

No. 1: Crying.
No matter what.

No. 2: Snitching
No matter what.

No. 3: Revenge
No matter what.

But bullets miss. You can get the wrong guy. And there's always someone else who knows to follow the rules...

Long Way Down is the story of Will, whose brother Shawn was gunned down last night on his way back from the corner store. Will is headed out to take revenge. As he steps into the elevator, his brother’s gun tucked into his waistband, he’s determined to follow “The Rules” his brother taught him, about crying (don’t), snitching (don’t), and revenge (do). His uncle and father passed on those rules to Shawn before that, and these rules govern the lives of everyone in the neighborhood. In the 60 seconds it takes for Will to reach the ground floor, he encounters the ghosts (or spirits) of several people, and these encounters change the way he views himself, Shawn, and the history he thought he knew.


At its core, Long Way Down is a book about choices: the ones that individuals feel like they must make, the inter-generational impact of choices over time, and the way that communities are held together by certain choices (or “rules”) and experiences. Will’s life (and story) is one deeply affected by gun violence, and as an heir to that history, he feels as if he has an obligation to avenge his brother’s death. Within this framework of choices, and Will’s intention, Reynolds weaves a modern homage to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by allowing Will, through interactions and conversations with ghosts, to realize that he may not know what he thinks he knows, and that there is room to make a different choice.


Obviously, the core of the book did not change between the original and the adaptation, and much of the language was preserved – and that language was poetic to start with. As with any graphic novel adaptation, the amount of text was reduced, and in this case transformed into visuals. There were certain things I especially appreciated about the graphic novel version: the depiction of the 9 blocks between Shawn and Will’s apartment and the corner store, the look and feel of the block Will lives on (including the basketball court), and the ways in which Uncle Mark’s movie came to life through Danica Novgorodoff’s illustrations. While reading the original I had my own idea of how things might look, but the visualization piece that comes with detailed art is second to none.


Let’s talk about that art. Because it is stunning. I had read a Novgorodoff graphic novel before, The Undertaking of Lily Chen, so I was familiar with her watercolor and ink illustration style. However, I was not prepared for the ways in which her art has grown and the masterful way she would interpret Reynolds’ story on the page. This is truly a lovely book. Gritty, tough, heavy – yes. And the art does not spare the reader that. But with judicious use of color, shadowing and shading, framing memories as illustrated polaroids, by outlining a body and filling it in as a cracked mirror – Novgorodoff adds layers and meaning to the text. While listening to the audiobook I got teary. Reynolds is a masterful narrator and the story is powerful. While reading the graphic novel, I full on cried twice. I cry easily, I’ll admit it… but there’s something special about this graphic novel, and I think (I know) it’ll reach even more children who need to hear its message in this format.


In all, Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel is an emotion-filled, potent, and honest adaptation of Jason Reynolds’ original award-winning novel-in-verse. It’s a must read and a necessary addition to any graphic novel collection.


Recommended for: everyone ages 12+ (and I’d even say 10, with some adult guidance), and especially those interested in contemporary graphic novels of exceptional literary and artistic merit.

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