The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

  • Title: The First Part Last
  • Author: Angela Johnson
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2003
  • ISBN: 0689849222
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 144
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award winner; Coretta Scott King author award; more here.

Author information: Angela Johnson has written over 40 books and has won numerous awards for her writing, including three Coretta Scott King awards, the Ezra Jack Keats award for new authors, and a Printz award. Her books range from titles for early readers to works for young adults, and her website includes links to all of her titles organized by age group. Her website also includes biographical information about herself and a list of honors and awards that her works have received. In an interview with CCBC, Johnson talks about her books and her writing style. She discusses the challenges of getting into the head of an adolescent boy for The First Part Last and how the dynamic between Bobby and his friends represents the teenage male bond–Bobby’s friends are there for him and support him, but will crack a joke or say something mean when things get too serious in order to diffuse the tension.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. These reviews all suggest that the writing is the strength of the novel; Johnson uses spare sentences to construct her characters and narrative and evoke emotion. They agree that Bobby is a well-developed character and that the issues presented in this novel will resonate with young readers.

Readers annotation: Bobby is your typical sixteen year old boy–except now he has to take care of a baby.

Summary: On his sixteenth birthday, Bobby finds out he is going to be a father. In a narrative that alternates between the past and the present, Bobby explains both the events leading up to his daughter’s birth as well as how his life changes after. He and his baby’s mother, Nia, struggle with deciding whether to keep the baby or give it up for adoption as well as how to cope with having a baby when they are still teenagers themselves. Flashes of Bobby’s life after the birth of his daughter show him exhausted and sleep-deprived, uncertain whether he will be able to manage as a father. In spite of his self-doubt and exhaustion, he loves his daughter, and at the end of the novel, he tells Feather about her mother. Nia suffered from eclampsia when Feather was born and is now in a permanent coma. Bobby decides that he and Feather need a fresh start, so they  move to Heaven, Ohio to build their life together.

Evaluation: I appreciate many aspects of this novel, but I don’t know if it worked as a whole for me. The tone of the book was raw and real, and the immediacy of Bobby’s life and the despair he feels at being a child trying to raise a child is tangible. His voice is honest, and he alternates between being an innocent and naive sixteen year old and being a father who is shouldering a burden that he doesn’t know if he can bear, which seems like an accurate representation of teen parents. Readers will sympathize with Bobby’s plight and root for his success, and their hearts will break for him upon the obvious but tragic revelation that Nia is (essentially) dead. The narrative style of flashing between points in time works well and paints a solid picture of what Bobby’s life was like before and after the birth of Feather. The novel’s use of short chapters and flashes through time makes the story read quickly, but the narrative loses some strength of characterization regarding the secondary characters as well as provides an underdeveloped understanding of Bobby’s life and future plans. This is clearly a narrative choice as opposed to sloppy writing, but the novel left too many unanswered questions for me to really invest in what was happening. That, coupled with the predictability of the plot, were the major weaknesses of the text. However, this book will likely attract reluctant readers due to its short length, quick chapters, and relatable narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The language is beautiful and Bobby’s plight is sympathetic, but the plot is underdeveloped and predictable.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The short chapters and strong narrative voice is sure to attract readers, especially reluctant readers.
  • Appeal factors: urban fiction, teen pregnancy, coping with loss, African-American protagonist.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want another book with emotional gravitas that deals with tough life experiences and features a non-white protagonist might try Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Although Alexie’s novel is more humorous than Johnson’s, the humor is biting and highlights the pain and injustice that the characters suffer, and Alexie delivers an emotional punch with his narrative.
  2. My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt might be a good fit for readers who are looking for another urban fiction title. While the main struggle in Johnson’s book is teen pregnancy, Leavitt focuses on drugs and the downward spiral that they can cause. Leavitt’s protagonist, like Bobby, finds herself trying to protect a younger and more vulnerable child from the harsh realities that she has to live through.

Book talk ideas: Perhaps start the book talk by asking the audience what differences they think there might be between a teenager’s life and a teenager with a baby’s life. Then read a chapter or passage from the book to highlight Bobby’s struggles–possibly one where he talks about his exhaustion or when he spends the night in the hospital with Feather. Then give a brief description of the book and talk about how it switches between past and present tense.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why do you think Bobby’s mother refuses to help with the baby? Do you agree with her decision?
  2. The author flips between the past and the present. Do you think this technique worked? How does it influence the way the story is told?
  3. Do you agree with Bobby’s choice to keep the baby? What would you have done?

Reason for reading: I’ve read fairly extensively when it comes to YA literature. It’s always been an area of interest of mine; last year I took a teen materials class for my degree and during fall semester I held an internship in the YA department of the Mill Valley Library. I made a conscious choice not to reread books I’ve already read for this project, because I feel there are so many valuable titles out there that I haven’t read that it would be a disservice to just reuse books I’m already familiar with. Johnson’s book is a title I probably never would have picked up outside this class. I don’t tend to gravitate towards urban fiction and the cover and book description didn’t do much in convincing me to read it. However, I thought it would be a great title to review precisely because it’s outside my comfort zone.

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