The First Part Last
By Angela Johnson
cover image retrieved on 9/27/12 from
Johnson, Angela. The First Part Last. New York: Simon Pulse, 2005. ISBN 9780689849237.
Bobby’s sixteenth ends with a dramatic turn of events that changes his life forever, as his girlfriend Nia tells him she is pregnant. In a story told through flashbacks and current clips of action, Bobby and Nia struggle to determine the right thing to do in their situation. The reader knows through the current scenes that ultimately Bobby parents the baby girl, whom he names Feather, alone. Not until the end of the pregnancy, in a flashback near the end of the book, does the reader find out the circumstances that lead to Bobby’s single parenthood. Though this book deals with heavy subject matter, it is presented in a compelling story that hooks the reader and grips the heart with the reality of unplanned pregnancy that many teens face.
The First Part Last is an absorbing book that is both the story of an African American teenager and the story of any teenager. Many subtle cultural references clue the reader that the main characters are African American, but honestly, without the cover photograph of an African American teenage boy holding a baby, the reader could picture this story happening in almost any culture, any socioeconomic group, any Western country. Cultural references that do exist in the book could be seen as stereotypical. Bobby’s family celebrates good times with lots of food; the family loves jazz and the Motown sound; Bobby’s parents are divorced and work in jobs that would typically be held by African Americans found in large cities like New York. Bobby and his friends like to chill out listening to music, eating pizza, spray-painting fences or walls. These things could be cause to identify Bobby as African American, but honestly they could be representative of many teenagers, especially in a large city.
The most obvious cultural marker that identifies the family as African American is Bobby’s description of baby Feather’s smooth, caramel-colored skin and curly hair. While even the baby’s name could stereotypically be considered a cultural name, in today’s society many parents name their children uncommon names. Bobby’s friends have nicknames that could be stereotypical of Black names, but once again many young people across cultures go by nicknames.
Ms. Johnson writes a touching tale of tragedy and determination. This piece of realistic fiction tugs at the heart, but not in a sappy way. The reader will cheer for Bobby as he does his best to man-up and take responsibility for his daughter. This is well worth the read. I will encourage teachers at my school to include it on their reading lists. Every teen should have the opportunity to experience teen pregnancy through the eyes and heart of a character so easy to identify with.
Claire Rosser (KLIATT Review, January 2005 (Vol. 39, No. 1))
Angela Johnson tells us this story through the narrative of the father, Bobby, in a series of vignettes “then” and “now.” Johnson has a way of getting to her readers’ emotions with few words, creating characters we really care about. Her young people are thoughtful, conscientious, and loving--certainly with failings, but trying to do better. Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students.
Bobby, the teenage artist and single-parent dad in Johnson's Coretta Scott King Award winner, Heaven (1998), tells his story here. At 16, he's scared to be raising his baby, Feather, but he's totally devoted to caring for her, even as she keeps him up all night, and he knows that his college plans are on hold. In short chapters alternating between "now" and "then," he talks about the baby that now fills his life, and he remembers the pregnancy of his beloved girlfriend, Nia. Johnson makes poetry with the simplest words in short, spare sentences that teens will read again and again. The great cover photo shows the strong African American teen holding his tiny baby in his arms.
Reading & Writing:
· Students will read another of Johnson’s novels, Heaven, which has as supporting characters Bobby and Feather from The First Part Last. Compare the uncertainty and tragedy in the two books. Students will select one of the characters from either book and prepare a storyboard of their life, including at least two events in the future of the character the student believes could occur.
· Students will read Johnson’s picture book When I am Old with You. Discuss the bonds that unite families. Students will write original poetry celebrating special bonds they have with family members. Illustrate and share with the class, or create a class portfolio of family bond poetry.
· Students will examine facts about teen pregnancy, using information found at http://www.teenhelp.com/teen-pregnancy/teen-pregnancy-statistics.html Create an informative brochure that explains the facts of teen pregnancy and supplies resources in your community that assist teens experiencing unplanned pregnancy.
· Angela Johnson paints vivid pictures with words of New York, the city Bobby loves, in this novel. Discuss some of the images she describes, and students’ background knowledge of cityscapes in general. Students will examine cityscapes at sites such as http://www.art.com/gallery/id--b12135/cityscapes-posters.htm and http://www.citiscapes-art.com/cities.htm . Students will create an original cityscape scene, based on a description from the book or inspiration from another source. Students will observe one another’s work and write reflective responses to at least two of their classmates about the imagery in the original cityscape.
Winner of the 2004 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature for Young Adults
Winner of the 2004 Coretta Scott King Award for Best African-American Children's Writer
Other Books by Angela Johnson