Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner
An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Jason Reynolds’s fiercely stunning 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.
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A Reading Group Guide to
Long Way Down
By Jason Reynolds
About the Book
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.
Jason Reynolds is a New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. The American Booksellers Association’s 2017 and 2018 spokesperson for Indies First, his many books include When I Was the Greatest, Boy in the Black Suit, All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), As Brave as You, For Every One, the Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu), and Long Way Down, which received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.
Fifteen-year-old Will, immobilized with grief when his older brother Shawn is shot and killed, slowly comes to mull The Rules in his head. There are three: don’t cry, don’t snitch, and “if someone you love / gets killed, / find the person / who killed / them and / kill them.” So Will locates Shawn’s gun, leaves his family’s eighth-floor apartment, and—well, here is where this intense verse novel becomes a gripping drama, as on each floor of the descending elevator Will is joined by yet another victim or perpetrator in the chain of violence that took his brother’s life. Shawn’s best friend Buck gets into the elevator on seven; Dani, Will’s friend from childhood, gets in on six; Will and Shawn’s uncle Mark gets in on five, in a cloud of cigarette smoke. And so it goes, each stop of the elevator adding to the chorus of ghosts (including Will and Shawn’s father), each one with his or her perspective on The Rules. The poetry is stark, fluently using line breaks and page-turns for dramatic effect; the last of these reveals the best closing line of a novel this season. Read alone (though best aloud), the novel is a high-stakes moral thriller; it’s also a perfect if daring choice for readers’ theater.
– The Horn Book **STARRED**, July/August 2017
Spanning a mere one minute and seven seconds, Reynolds’ new free-verse novel is an intense snapshot of the chain reaction caused by pulling a trigger. First, 15-year-old Will Holloman sets the scene by relating his brother’s, Shawn’s, murder two days prior—gunned down while buying soap for their mother. Next, he lays out The Rules: don’t cry, don’t snitch, always get revenge. Now that the reader is up to speed, Will tucks Shawn’s gun into his waistband and steps into an elevator, steeled to execute rule number three and shoot his brother’s killer. Yet, the simple seven-floor descent becomes a revelatory trip. At each floor, the doors open to admit someone killed by the same cycle of violence that Will’s about to enter. He’s properly freaked out, but as the seconds tick by and floors count down, each new occupant drops some knowledge and pushes Will to examine his plans for that gun. Reynolds’ concise verses echo like shots against the white space of the page, their impact resounding. He peels back the individual stories that led to this moment in the elevator and exposes a culture inured to violence because poverty, gang life, or injustice has left them with no other option. In this all too real portrait of survival, Reynolds goes toe-to-toe with where, or even if, love and choice are allowed to exist. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: A noisy buzz always surrounds this critically acclaimed author’s work, and the planned tour and promo campaign will boost this book’s to a siren call.
– Booklist Online, STARRED REVIEW, July 1st, 2017
After 15-year-old Will sees his older brother, Shawn, gunned down on the streets, he sets out to do the expected: the rules dictate no crying, no snitching, and revenge. Though the African-American teen has never held one, Will leaves his apartment with his brother's gun tucked in his waistband. As he travels down on the elevator, the door opens on certain floors, and Will is confronted with a different figure from his past, each a victim of gun violence, each important in his life. They also force Will to face the questions he has about his plan. As each "ghost" speaks, Will realizes how much of his own story has been unknown to him and how intricately woven they are. Told in free-verse poems, this is a raw, powerful, and emotional depiction of urban violence. The structure of the novel heightens the tension, as each stop of the elevator brings a new challenge until the narrative arrives at its taut, ambiguous ending. There is considerable symbolism, including the 15 bullets in the gun and the way the elevator rules parallel street rules. Reynolds masterfully weaves in textured glimpses of the supporting characters. Throughout, readers get a vivid picture of Will and the people in his life, all trying to cope with the circumstances of their environment while expressing the love, uncertainty, and hope that all humans share. This astonishing book will generate much needed discussion. (Verse fiction. 12-adult)
– Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW, 7/15/17
Fifteen-year-old Will’s big brother has been shot and killed. According to the rules that Will has been taught, it is now his job to kill the person responsible. He easily finds his brother’s gun and gets on the elevator to head down from his eighth-floor apartment. But it’s a long way down to the ground floor. At each floor, a different person gets on to tell a story. Each of these people is already dead. As they relate their tales, readers learn about the cycle of violence in which Will is caught up. The protagonist faces a difficult choice, one that is a reality for many young people. Teens are left with an unresolved ending that goes beyond the simple question of whether Will will seek revenge. Told in verse, this title is fabulistic in its simplicity and begs to be discussed. Its hook makes for an excellent booktalk. It will pair well with Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Reynolds’s previous works. The unique narrative structure also makes it an excellent read-alike for Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. VERDICT This powerful work is an important addition to any collection.
– School Library Journal *STARRED*, July 2017
Will, 15, is following his neighborhood’s well-established rules—don’t cry, don’t snitch, but do get revenge “if someone you love/ gets killed”—when he leaves his apartment, intent on killing whoever murdered his older brother, Shawn. He’s emboldened by the gun tucked into his waistband: “I put my hand behind my back/ felt the imprint/ of the piece, like/ another piece/ of me/ an extra vertebra,/ some more/ backbone.” As Will makes his way to the ground floor of his building, the elevator stops to accept passengers, each an important figure from his past, all victims of gun violence. Are these ghosts? Or is it Will’s subconscious at work, forcing him to think about what he intends to do and what it will accomplish? The story unfolds in the time it takes for the elevator to descend, and it ends with a two-word question that hits like a punch to the gut. Written entirely in spare verse, this is a tour de force from a writer who continues to demonstrate his skill as an exceptionally perceptive chronicler of what it means to be a black teen in America.
– Publishers Weekly *STARRED REVIEW, July 31, 2017
The newest work for teens by Jason Reynolds (author of As Brave As You and Ghost, and 2017 Indies First spokesperson) begins with 15-year-old William speaking directly to the reader: "I haven't/ told nobody the story/ I'm about to tell you./ And truth is, you probably ain't/ gon' believe it either/ gon' think I'm lying/ or I'm losing it,/ but I'm telling you,/ this story is true."
The day before yesterday, Will's older brother, Shawn, went to the other side of their largely black neighborhood--purportedly crossing rival lines--to get their mother special soap for her eczema. Shortly after Shawn left, Will and his friend, who were talking outside, heard shots. They immediately did what they had been trained to do: "Pressed our lips to the/ pavement and prayed/ the boom, followed by/ the buzz of a bullet,/ ain't meet us."
Afterward, Will says, "me and Tony/ waited like we always do,/ for the rumble to stop,/ before picking our heads up/ and poking our heads out/ to count the bodies./ This time/ there was only one": Shawn. "[I]f the blood/ inside you," Will tells the reader, "is on the inside/ of someone else/ you never want to/ see it on the outside of/ them."
Now, two days later, Will is heartbroken and desperate as he abides by "The Rules" he's been taught all of his life; he won't cry and he won't snitch. And, most importantly, he plans to follow through with the third rule: "if someone you love/ gets killed,/ find the person/ who killed/ them and/ kill them." He finds a gun in Shawn's dresser--one bullet under a full clip--and sets off to kill the person who killed his brother.
With the gun tucked into the waistband of his pants, Will gets on the elevator at 9:08:02 a.m. The next 200-plus pages of action take place between the time Will enters the elevator and when it reaches the lobby a moment later, at 9:09:09 a.m. As Will takes the long trip down, a new person boards at every floor. Each new person is a friend or loved one from Will's past; each new person is dead, a victim of gun violence.
As the ghosts of those killed congregate in the elevator to tell Will their stories, their interconnected tales are untangled and Will begins to see how the things he thinks he knows may not be true at all, and that The Rules just perpetuate the cycle of violence and keep everyone down.
Will's trip between floors and through time is powerful and painful. Reynolds's work is rich with symbolism, the verse lending a feeling of immediacy to the 300-page, 60-second journey. Long Way Down is an intense read with a beautifully ambiguous ending that highlights the humanity of those who are regularly touched by and contribute to gun violence. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Shelf Talker: Will is visited by the ghosts of victims of gun violence as he prepares to kill someone himself in Jason Reynolds's thoughtful and captivating Long Way Down.
– Shelf Awareness, September 6, 2017
In this free-verse novel, it’s been fewer than two days since narrator Will witnessed the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn. Now, according to the “rules” passed from father to son, brother to brother, revenge is the next order of business, and Carlon Riggs, a member of the Dark Suns gang, is in Will’s crosshairs. Taking the gun jammed into Shawn’s dresser, Will heads to the elevator on the seventh floor of his apartment building and presses the “L” button (which he and Shawn used to pretend stood for “loser” rather than “lobby”) at 9:08:02 am. Before he reaches the lobby at 9:09:09, six ghosts will enter the elevator—victims, perpetrators, or both, entangled in a chain of murder, misidentification, and revenge that led to Shawn’s death; together they challenge Will’s perspective on the killing and on his role in vigilante justice. The ghosts all know one another as confederates in death, and all history that might have once made them enemies is now overshadowed by their detachment from mortal issues; they can share cigarettes and a mildly sardonic view of the absurdity of their collective backstory. The spirits, particularly Will’s uncle, father, and brother, have Will’s interest at heart; they won’t tell Will what to do, but they break through his anger and pride and point him to a place where he can allow himself to grieve and reconsider. Will’s voice emerges through free-verse poems that are arresting in their imagery and convincing in their conversational cadence. Gripping and lightning fast, this will be a strong recommendation for discussion, particularly within groups of varied reading interests and abilities.
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