Review of The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Johnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York: Simon Pulse. ISBN 0-689-84923-0 (pbk).
The story is told by Bobby in alternative chapters of “Now” and “Then” across four Parts. In the first chapter (a “Now”) we find out that Bobby has an eleven-day-old daughter named Feather. In “Then” of Part I, his girlfriend Nia announces that she’s pregnant on the day that Bobby turns 16. We meet the parents of both teens.
Bobby lives on the Upper West Side of New York City with his mother (Mary), a professional photographer. Bobby has two brothers, both grown. We only meet Paul, who lives in Heaven, Ohio. Bobby and Mary live in an upper floor apartment (flat) decorated with overstuffed pillows, Moroccan rugs, Jacob Lawrence prints, and black and white photos of the three boys in Africa, Malaysia, Spain, and Venezuela on “every table, shelf, or furniture surface there is in the whole place….Color and sound was what my parents were all about.” (p. 19) Their flat has at least two-bedrooms.
Mary is divorced from restaurant owner Fred, now living in Brooklyn. Fred cooks cheesy fries and ribs (Bobby’s favorites) for his birthday and cries when he learns his son is an unwed father. Nia Wilkins lives with her parents in a loft in Chelsea. “Everything is straight lines and post-modern sculpture backlit. Stark white and so neat and clean you could probably make soup in the toilet.” (p. 18)
In “Then” of Part II, Bobby tells his friends about the pregnancy and goes with Nia for her first visit to an obstetrician. Coco Fernandez (p. 24), a fiddler in a bluegrass band (p. 35), lives downstairs from Mary. Bobby’s two best friends are J. L. and K-Boy. Bobby pulls a prank with J. L. (who knows how to quiet a crying baby). The serious K-Boy is over six feet tall and a beautiful mahogany color, but doesn’t date.
In “Then” of Part III, Nia and Bobby hang out with their friends, a day at Central Park and a party. Nia’s parents are considering sending her to her grandmother in Georgia because her blood pressure is too high (p. 79). Meantime, in the “Now” chapters of Parts I through III, we see Bobby going through sleepless nights, trying to stay awake during Brit Lit class, drawing Nia and tagging a wall, and going through a twenty-four hour fever with Feather.
In “Then” of Part IV, Nia is in her eighth month. She, Bobby, and all four parents talk to counselors about giving their baby up for adoption. Both teens and Fred cry, but they decide on adoption. The next chapter is Bobby singing television commercials to their baby, but the following chapter is entitled “Nia.” This is the only time we hear Nia’s voice; the entire chapter (two pages) is written in italics.
The last “Then” chapter is about Bobby going to the emergency room, hearing that Nia is in an irreversible vegetative state (p. 123), and seeing Feather for the first time. The book ends with Bobby saying goodbye to the vegetative Nia, and taking Feather to Heaven, Ohio, because he believes it to be a better place to raise a child. As Bobby said in the first chapter, “Things have to change.” (p. 4)
3. Critical Analysis
No doubt that this is realistic fiction. Each character is well drawn; we recognize people like them. In the first page, Bobby tells us that his mother’s reaction to his fitful sleeping was to sit on his bedroom floor and play his Game Boy. “My mom says that I didn’t sleep through the night until I was eight years old. It didn’t make any difference to her ‘cause she was up too, listening to the city.” He never calls her cold or his father weak even though Fred only has two functions—cooking and crying. As with all good fiction, the reader is left to discover the character of Bobby’s parents. The race of the main characters is only subtly revealed, mostly by comments about hair or K-Boy’s complexion.
Bobby doesn’t blame anyone; in fact, he doesn’t even explain how Nia got pregnant. The mom of his handsome friend K-Boy went into denial when she found a condom under his bed. Mary provided such a full basket of condoms that Bobby supplied all his friends! Doesn’t each of us know mothers at both these extremes, too?
Bobby’s two male friends’ reaction to the pregnancy was that Bobby was stupid (careless), though they continue to hang with both Bobby and Nia. In the Central Park “fairy tale” chapter, all three boys run around finding food to satisfy the cravings of the ever-enlarging Nia. The very unevenness of responses (from fairy tale to the classroom prank to tagging the wall to try to make sense of it all) rings true to the confusion of being sixteen under the best of circumstances.
The adults do their job, either trying to avoid teen pregnancy or supporting the teens’ decisions. Mary the mother, Jackie the babysitter, and Coco the neighbor help Bobby when he needs a few hours break. Doctors, teachers, and counselors are all realistic. How can they help? They did their jobs to educate; no one but the teen parents can respond to creating a baby. As much as Bobby would like to run away from the problem, it’s his baby—literally and figuratively.
Until the “Nia” chapter, we only see Nia through Bobby’s eyes. We see her as scared, cranky, and hungry. I reacted very emotionally to that chapter. At five, the diminutive Nia wanted to be a firefighter. At ten, she wanted to be a balloonist. By this time we know that she isn’t feeling high because she’s on drugs. “I guess this is what it must feel like to be dying. All I want to do is lie here and sleep, even though I see the blood …it was just a minute ago Bobby was singing a shampoo commercial, but he’s gone now. But that’s okay because all I want to do is fly.” (p. 116)
What about that title? In the first page, just after recalling how his mom sat on the floor of his bedroom when he couldn’t sleep through the night, Bobby says, “I get it now. I really get it.” Feather, in just her first few days of life, is also having trouble sleeping. I think this is where we understand what Bobby meant when he said (p. 4) “Thing have to change.” He considers doing with his daughter what his mother did with him for the first eight years of his life, but doesn’t.
On page 129, Bobby is glad he’s living with Fred because “he puts the covers over me at night and kisses Feather all the time before he leaves the room.” Fred asks what he’s thinking. Bobby says “I jump ‘cause I think it’s the first time my dad has ever asked me this question.” Back on page 4, Bobby says that if “the world were really right, humans would live life backward and do the first part last…everybody could end their life on their momma or daddy’s stomach in a warm room, waiting for the soft morning light.”
You have to read this book more than once or at least read it through and then start it over. When you do, you will find that, without one word of anger, Bobby has told us strongly, clearly what was wrong with the way he was brought up. On pages 129-132, Bobby says he has nightmares about leaving Feather on the subway and being unable to get back to her fast enough. Bobby gives up the city he’s always loved so much for a town his brother says is a good place to raise kids. “I can tell you how it is to feel as brand new as my daughter even though I don’t know what comes next in this place called Heaven.” (And I dare you to keep from crying!)
4. Book Reviews
Powell’s quotes this review from Publishers Weekly "Each nuanced chapter feels like a poem in its economy and imagery; yet the characters...emerge fully formed."
Amazon.com gives this review: “‘This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me. And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing. It's not going to happen.’ Bobby is your classic urban teenaged boy—impulsive, eager, restless. On his sixteenth birthday he gets some news from his girlfriend Nia that changes his life forever. … Suddenly things like school and house parties and hanging with friends no longer seem important as they're replaced by visits to Nia's obstetrician and a social worker who says that the only way for Nia and Bobby to lead a normal life is to put their baby up for adoption.
With powerful language and keen insight, Johnson looks at the male side of teen pregnancy as she delves into one young man's struggle to figure out what ‘the right thing’ is and then to do it. No matter what the cost.”
Miranda Doyle, San Francisco Public Library, writes for School Library Journal, “Grade 8 Up-Brief, poetic, and absolutely riveting, this gem of a novel tells the story of a young father struggling to raise an infant. Bobby, 16, is a sensitive and intelligent narrator. His parents are supportive but refuse to take over the child-care duties, so he struggles to balance parenting, school, and friends who don't comprehend his new role. Alternate chapters go back to the story of Bobby's relationship with his girlfriend Nia and how parents and friends reacted to the news of her pregnancy. Bobby's parents are well-developed characters, Nia's upper-class family somewhat less so.
Flashbacks lead to the revelation in the final chapters that Nia is in an irreversible coma caused by eclampsia. This twist, which explains why Bobby is raising Feather on his own against the advice of both families, seems melodramatic. So does a chapter in which Bobby snaps from the pressure and spends an entire day spray painting a picture on a brick wall, only to be arrested for vandalism. However, any flaws in the plot are overshadowed by the beautiful writing. Scenes in which Bobby expresses his love for his daughter are breathtaking. Teens who enjoyed Margaret Bechard's Hanging on to Max (Millbrook, 2002) will love this book, too, despite very different conclusions. The attractive cover photo of a young black man cradling an infant will attract readers.”
N.E.M. of AudioFile says, “Rarely do we see teen pregnancy from the father's perspective. Narrator Khalipa Oldjohn gives realistic insight into the consequences of unexpected parenthood on one teenaged father. Alternating between "then," when Nia told him on his sixteenth birthday that he was going to be a father, and "now," as he struggles to raise his daughter alone, we witness Bobby coming to grips with responsibility as he struggles to do the right thing. The back-and-forth between past and present requires close attention to the narration to understand why Bobby gave up the adoption option in favor of fatherhood.”
Hazel Rochman comments to Booklist, “Gr. 6-12. 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. Yes, the teens' parents were right. The couple should have used birth control; adoption could have meant freedom. But when Nia suffers irreversible postpartum brain damage, Bobby takes their newborn baby home.
There's no romanticizing. The exhaustion is real, and Bobby gets in trouble with the police and nearly messes up everything. But from the first page, readers feel the physical reality of Bobby's new world: what it's like to hold Feather on his stomach, smell her skin, touch her clenched fists, feel her shiver, and kiss the top of her curly head. 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.”
Norah Piehl at http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0689849222.asp pens, “We've all read plenty of stories about teen moms. In most of these tales, the moms are raising their babies by themselves because the dads are irresponsible, uninvolved, or just plain absent. Aren't there any good teenage dads out there?
In The First Part Last, the story of a teen father's growing love for his baby daughter, Angela Johnson turns the tables as she revisits a character from her award-winning novel, Heaven. Bobby is an ambitious young man. An aspiring artist with talented parents, he is poised to graduate early from high school. But when his girlfriend Nia surprises him on his sixteenth birthday with the news of her pregnancy, Bobby's whole world turns upside down.
This brief novel alternates chapters between ‘then’ and ‘now. The ‘then’ is the story of Nia's pregnancy, as Bobby and Nia struggle to decide whether to raise their child or cave to parental pressure and give her up for adoption. The ‘now’ is Bobby's own struggle to do the right thing for his infant daughter Feather, as a tragedy surrounding her birth has left him to care for her alone. Bobby is lucky to have a good support system, including his mother and father, his buddies, and his caring older brother. All along, Bobby's voice, which narrates the story, wavers between great love for his daughter and panic at his situation, but the emotional heart of the story never falters.
In the end, the portrayal of Bobby's relationship with his daughter is a positive one, although some critical readers might get the impression that Johnson is providing the wrong kind of role model. Not to worry. Although she does depict Bobby as a genuinely caring father, she also provides a grim picture of the not-so-rosy realities of teen parenthood, as Bobby copes with daycare dilemmas and his own insecurities: ‘This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me. And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing.’
If this novel has one fault, it is that Bobby seems so wrapped up in his daughter that he doesn't take time to dwell on his grief over Nia's fate. Bobby is a caring person who seemed to truly love his girlfriend (even heading halfway across Manhattan to satisfy her pregnancy cravings), so his lack of reflection on the loss of this relationship doesn't ring true. Overall, though, The First Part Last offers an all too-rare portrayal of a caring, nurturing young man, and it should be treasured as a result.”
Matt Warner provides the Barnes & Noble review. “Author Angela Johnson follows up her Coretta Scott King Award–winning novel, Heaven, with this absorbing prequel about a single teen struggling to accept his new paternal role.
In chapters that flash between Bobby's relationship with Nia leading up to Feather's birth (entitled ‘then’) and his life now that he's a father on his own (‘now’), Johnson paints an honest, vivid portrait of a man straddling the line between childhood and adulthood. Throughout the book, Bobby fights his own sleep deprivation and desire to hand off Feather to someone else for caretaking, and in one tense episode, he takes off to go spray-painting while his daughter is looked after by a neighbor. Chapter by chapter the events surrounding Bobby's situation become clearer, and after the narrative reaches a pivotal chapter (called ‘Nia’) that marks Bobby's transformation into single parenthood, the true surprise comes near the end, when we learn what has happened to Feather's mom that eventually spurs Bobby to move to Heaven, Ohio.
In a powerful, spare read that will grip you on several levels, Johnson delivers a worthy continuation of Heaven. The characters' relationship dynamics -- Bobby with Nia, his parents, and Feather -- are deep yet subtle, while the book's main character is one not often found in young adult literature. The First Part Last is an original read that will stir you to the core.”
Barnes and Noble provide these reviews. From Publishers Weekly, “A 16-year-old tells the story of how he became a single dad. … The author skillfully relates the hope in the midst of pain. Ages 12-up.”
Alicia Dodson writes for Children's Literature, “Narrated in first-person point of view from the perspective of Bobby, a young, black male, this adolescent novel depicts life before and after having a child. By showing the tremendous responsibility that accompanies teenage parenthood, Johnson attempts to compel teenagers to evaluate the ramifications of premarital sex and pregnancy. Because most stories are written from the perspective of the teenage mother, the author presents her story in a unique way by writing from the viewpoint of a teenage father. The cover of the novel depicts a young African-American male holding an infant, which foreshadows the content of the novel.
Stylistically, by titling the chapters consistently ‘now’ and ‘then,’ except for one chapter is titled ‘Nia’ and the final chapter titled ‘heaven,’ Johnson compels the reader to examine closely the changes that occur in Bobby's life. The title as well the book's division into four parts help emphasize the tremendous impact that Feather, Bobby's baby daughter, has on the young protagonist. By setting the book in New York, Angela Johnson helps debunk many common stereotypes. The entire novel attempts to teach about life, growth, and maturity. Johnson does a good job of showing the impact that having a child can have on life. … Ages 12 up.”
VOYA - Teens' Top Ten nominator, age 13 says, “I'm really glad that Johnson wrote this prequel to Heaven. Bobby was a character that everyone wanted to know more about. This well-written book is not like anything that I've ever read before. It goes fast and has realistic fiction, romance, and suspense all in one. Most teen pregnancy books are about what the girl goes through, but this one is written from a different, exciting angle. Both girls and boys can read it. VOYA Codes: 5Q 4P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12).”
By Claire Rosser, “To quote from the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, May 2003: On the cover of this book is an appealing photograph of a young black man with a tiny infant. This picture introduces the novel to the YA reader—here is the story of a teenage father, loving his little daughter. How did this happen?
Angela Johnson tells us the story through the narrative of the father, Bobby, in a series of vignettes ‘then’ and ‘now.’ For Johnson's readers, there is even a connection to her previous novel, Heaven, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. There is believable language, with occasional swearing and some references to Bobby's sexual experiences with Nia, the baby's mother.
Bobby is an urban teenager from a middle-class family, with parents who truly care about him and his baby. Stress over the baby's arrival, however, causes the parents' separation, and this, of course, doesn't help Bobby cope. Bobby and Nia had planned to give the baby up for adoption, but then tragedy strikes Nia, and everyone's future is changed. Bobby is a loving father who adores his baby even though it seems impossible to take good care of her, go to school and prepare for college, and stay in touch with his good friends.
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. (An ALA Best Book for YAs and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.) KLIATT Codes: JS*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students… Ages 12 to 18.”
Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA reviews for School Library Journal, “Gr 7 Up-Angela Johnson's Printz Award-winning novel … is perfectly suited to the audiobook medium, and Khalipa Oldjohn narrates this first person tale with poignant authenticity of tone and pacing.
At 16, Bobby struggles to be a father to his newborn daughter while keeping up with school, maintaining his boyhood friendships, and trying to live up to his parents' expectations. Told in alternating passages of ‘Now’ and ‘Then,’ the back-story that has brought Bobby to this point falls steadily but deliberately into place, with the revelation of why Bobby is a single father arriving only near the very end.
In spite of its brevity, the story is complex and satisfying. Bobby is both boy and man, responsible and overwhelmed, near panic and able to plan an intelligent and loving future for Feather, the daughter he adores and nurtures. In audio format, this story can readily be shared in just a class period or two and will grab listeners immediately, making it an ideal subject for class discussion. It will also be instantly popular for leisure reading outside of school.”
Amazon.com customers who bought this item also bought Monster by Walter Dean Myers. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler, Tears Of A Tiger by Sharon M. Draper, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, and Cut by Patricia Mccormick. Barnes and Nobel customers who bought The First Part Last also bought Heaven by Angela Johnson, John by Jude Palencar, Forged By Fire by Sharon Mills Draper, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Mills Draper, and Darkness before Dawn by Sharon M. Draper.
This lesson comes from http://www.tracievaughnzimmer.com/First%20Part%20Last.htm:
Pre-reading: How do you think your life would change as a teenager if you suddenly had the responsibility of an infant? Make a schedule of your life as it is now (look at your day planner) and then make a new one based on a life with baby.
Knowledge: Describe how Bobby and Nia’s parents react to the news of her pregnancy. How would yours? Find a quote that most reveals who Bobby is as a person. Explain why you picked it.
Comprehension: Find three examples that show what kind of father Bobby is to Feather. What do you think is the most difficult thing for Bobby? Why? (Answer this question after a few chapters, answer it again at the end of the novel and see if the answer changes)
Application: Predict what happens to this family ten years into the future. Explain why. Write ten questions you would ask Bobby, Mary, and Nia if you could.
Analyze: On page 35 Bobby says, “… which pisses her off and makes her scream, and then I look around my room and miss me.” Explain what he means. Angela Johnson tells the story in a non-linear fashion. Why, do you think, she chose this literary device to reveal the story?
Synthesize: How would you cope under the extraordinary circumstances that Bobby finds himself? Would you make the same choices?
Evaluation: If Bobby had Nia’s help raising Feather would he be a different father? What makes you think so? Do you agree with Mary and Fred’s approach to grandparenthood? Why or why not?
Multiple Intelligence Projects for The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Verbal/ Linguistic: Write at least five letters to Nia explaining what is happening with both Bobby and Feather. Be specific! Or study the spare, lyrical writing of Angela Johnson and try to write one scene of a story with a similar quality and the same economy of words.
Logical/ Mathematical: Find the most recent statistics that you can about teen pregnancy in America. Create at least one graph explaining the results you discovered.
Visual/ Spatial: Create a piece of art that you feel represents Bobby’s emotions throughout the novel. Think about form, color and line as you create your work. Explain your art in a brief, but illuminating paragraph.
Body/Kinesthetic: In small groups, act out scenes from the novel. Or write the dialogue and act out the scenes that are left off camera (like what Nia says when she meets Bobby with a balloon on his birthday).
Musical/ Rhythmic: Either create an original piece of music yourself to accompany the story or, find at least three songs that you think belong on the soundtrack of the movie version of this book. Explain why you chose these songs (and include a copy of the lyrics) in a brief journal.
Interpersonal: Cooperative Learning Project: In groups of no more than three explore and research one aspect of teen pregnancy (or choose one of your own):
How sex education affects pregnancy rates
Social implications of teen pregnancy on communities
Long-term effects for the mother (and/or father) for future success
Long term success for the infant in health and education
The availability of birth control and other services on pregnancy rates
Which children are most at risk for teen pregnancy
Foster care system
Outstanding programs for young mothers and fathers
Then, create a website (or pamphlet) sharing your compilation of facts with the public. Invite the public and/or other teens in a discussion via a message board about it.
Intrapersonal: Write a letter to yourself about where you want to be in ten years. Reflect on how your goals would be compromised if you were forced to turn your attention to another human being. Assume that your responsibilities would be maximized similar to Bobby’s and that adults would let you assume the brunt of your own mistake.
Refer to the letter as needed.