First off, it’s Jason Reynolds. Second off, this novel takes place in sixty seconds. That’s it. It’s a story of consequences, told in verse, and hitting on every level of the storytelling spectrum.
“An intense snapshot of the chain reaction caused by pulling a trigger.” —Booklist (starred review) “Astonishing.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “A tour de force.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A Newbery Honor Book A Coretta Scott King Honor Book A Printz Honor Book A Time Best YA Book of All Time (2021) A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner for Young Adult Literature Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award An Edgar Award Winner for Best Young Adult Fiction Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner An Entertainment Weekly Best YA Book of 2017 A Vulture Best YA Book of 2017 A Buzzfeed Best YA Book of 2017
An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds’s electrifying novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.
A cannon. A strap. A piece. A biscuit. A burner. A heater. A chopper. A gat. A hammer A tool for RULE
Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?
As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator?
Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.
And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END...if Will gets off that elevator.
Told in short, fierce staccato narrative verse, Long Way Down is a fast and furious, dazzlingly brilliant look at teenage gun violence, as could only be told by Jason Reynolds.
Jason Reynolds is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Kirkus Award winner, a UK Carnegie Medal winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, an Odyssey Award Winner and two-time honoree, the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award. He was also the 2020–2022 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His many books include All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely); When I Was the Greatest; The Boy in the Black Suit; Stamped; As Brave as You; For Every One; the Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu); Look Both Ways; Stuntboy, in the Meantime; Ain’t Burned All the Bright (recipient of the Caldecott Honor) and My Name Is Jason. Mine Too. (both cowritten with Jason Griffin); and Long Way Down, which received a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Honor. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.
Will has known about the rules ever since his childhood friend was killed on the playground, and he’s followed the first two: no crying, and no snitching. When his older brother, Shawn, is shot and killed while walking home from the store, Will knows he is expected to follow the final rule and avenge his brother’s death. He knows where Shawn keeps his gun, and he thinks he knows who the shooter is: a member of a rival gang named Riggs. Even if Will has never used a gun—never even held a gun before—rules are rules. But in the elevator on the way down to meet Riggs, Will encounters family and friends who died playing by the rules, and now Will has to decide what he is going to do when the elevator reaches its final stop.
1. Using details revealed in the text, create a character sketch or character collage of the book’s protagonist.
2. Unlike a traditional prose novel, Long Way Down is written in verse. Poets are known for using language intentionally and with precision, often choosing words with connotative and denotative meaning. Reflect on the significance of the protagonist’s name. The word Will can be used as a proper name, but also as a verb and a noun. In what ways does the protagonist encompass multiple meanings of his name?
3. What are “The Rules”? Do you agree that these three rules exist? If so, can you remember how you learned about them? If not, are there other unspoken rules that you follow instead? What do you think Will means when he writes: “They weren’t meant to be broken./They were meant for the broken/to follow.”
4. When we analyze poems, we pay attention to the poem’s format. This includes things like length, shape, line breaks (including the use of enjambment and caesura), and spacing on the page. Identify a section of the novel where you think the format adds meaning to a passage and explain how the poem’s format impacts the meaning.
5. Will enjoys finding anagrams, especially when the anagram illuminates or comments on the meaning of the original word. Explain the connections between the anagrams that he creates. Why are they significant to the story?
6. When Shawn turned eighteen, what did his mother worry about? What do you think she meant in saying that when Shawn walked in the nighttime, he needed to make sure that the nighttime wasn’t walking in him? Do you think Shawn tried to heed his mother’s warning?
7. Will includes a list of nicknames for a gun. Are there any other nicknames that you know of that he did not include? What are the different connotations of each name? When Will puts the gun in the back of his pants, what nickname does he use for it? What does his choice suggest about his feelings toward carrying the gun?
8. Who does Will believe killed his brother? What are his reasons for believing this? Do you think he’s right?
9. Throughout the novel, Will uses figurative language (simile, metaphor) to describe things or feelings. For example, when he holds Shawn’s gun for the first time, he notes that it is, “Heavier than/I expected/like holding/a newborn.” In this example, the juxtaposition of the image of a newborn baby with the weight of the gun highlights the deadliness of the gun and loss of Will’s innocence. Find an example of figurative language that you think is especially effective and explain why it is significant.
10. How does Will plan to avenge his brother’s death? In this moment, do you think he is doing the right thing?
11. Through flashbacks, Will shares memories of his brother. What do each of these memories reveal about their relationship?
12. When the first ghost enters the elevator, Reynolds includes a time stamp at the top of the page. How much time elapsed between the first stop and the bottom floor? Why do you think Reynolds includes these indications of the passage of time? Do they inform or complicate your understanding of the text?
13. How does Will recognize the first ghost that enters the elevator? What was the ghost’s relationship to Shawn and Will? What message do you think he is trying to convey with his words and actions?
14. Why doesn’t Will recognize Dani at first? What questions does she have for Will? What message do you think she is trying to share with him?
15. Why did Uncle Mark start dealing drugs? Why did he keep dealing? How did he die? Why do you think Uncle Mark wants Will to act out what will happen when he follows the rules? What message is he trying to convey with his words and actions?
16. How did Will’s father die? How does the relationship between Uncle Mark and Will’s father parallel the relationship between Will and Shawn? Why do you think Will’s father pulls the gun on Will? Does Will understand what his father is trying to show him?
17. Frick is the only ghost to enter the elevator whom Will does not know. How is he related to the story? Why do you think he visits Will?
18. The last person who enters the elevator is Shawn. What does Will tell his brother? How does Shawn respond? What rule do both brothers break? Do you think Shawn wants Will to avenge his death by shooting Riggs? Explain your answer.
19. The last words in the book are a question. How do you think Will answers this question? Where do you think Will will be five years after the end of the book?
1. Research the epidemic of gun violence in America, specifically looking at gang-related gun violence (note: the Chicago Tribune has excellent special reporting on gun violence in Chicago). Try to identify some of the root causes of the epidemic. What could be done to solve this problem?
2. Long Way Down explores the perpetuation of a cycle of violence and the theme of revenge. Compare the development of these themes in Reynolds’s novel to a classic revenge story like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Iliad, or The Count of Monte Cristo.
3. Will is fifteen years old and facing the challenge of making adult decisions that may have lasting consequences. Compare Will’s conflict in Long Way Down to the conflict of the speaker in William Stafford’s poem “Fifteen”. Think about a time when you were faced with a moral dilemma. What choice did you make? Write a narrative poem or narrative essay about your own experience.
4. Because poems often include meter and sound devices (such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, assonance, and rhyme—including internal and slant rhyme), we often talk about the musicality of poems. Try adding a musical element to the novel or a section of the novel. You may choose to create a soundtrack for the text using existing music, or you may want to create your own beats to accompany a moment or moments in the text.
5. Look at some examples of crime reporting; then, using as many specific details from the text as you can, write a newspaper article about Shawn’s murder.
6. Will notes that his brother idolized the rappers Tupac and Biggie. While rap music is sometimes criticized for being misogynistic and/or glorifying violence, drug use, and gang culture, rap music has also brought to light issues of social justice and been a catalyst for reflection, awareness, and change. Choose a hip-hop or rap artist to research and profile. How do their personal experiences inform their music? What message do you think they are trying to convey? Choose one of their songs and analyze it the way you would analyze a poem.
7. At the beginning of the novel, Will reflects that the story he is about tell will either make readers want to be his friend or not want to be his friend at all. After you finish the book, write Will a letter telling him which one is true for you and explaining why.
Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy in Florida.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Today on the blog, we welcome back the amazing Heidi Heilig—author of the acclaimed The Girl From Everywhere—who returns with her sophomore series, For a Muse of Fire. The book is about Southeast Asian–inspired shadow puppets, necromancy, colonialism, and rebellion and is just as complex and delicious as that sounds. Heilig has been very outspoken […]
Hello and welcome back to the light, friends. Across just ten episodes, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House—part adaptation of and part homage to the Shirley Jackson novel—proves itself to be creepy, compelling horror that is endlessly watchable, even if you’re watching through your fingers. If you want to keep the chills going, we’ve got […]
Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite phrase: “reluctant readers.” I’m firmly of the opinion that readers are only reluctant because they haven’t yet found a book that suits them, or are simply tired of only being handed books about thin, white, cishet protagonists. Whatever the reason may be, this list seeks to provide recommendations for many […]
In Ann Aguirre’s new thriller Like Never and Always, best friends Liv and Morgan are in a car crash on a dark road, with one of their boyfriends behind the wheel. When Liv wakes up in the hospital, the people around her insist on calling her by her best friend’s name…and when she finally looks […]