Tuesday, September 17, 2013

THE FIRST PART LAST, by Angela Johnson

CoverJohnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
ISBN 0-689-84922-2


With chapters that alternate between present and past, 16 year old Bobby tells the story of how he came to be a single dad to his baby daughter, Feather, and the pain and love that have come with fatherhood. 


The biggest strength of this novel is the amazingly poetic language.  Told from the point of view of 16 year old Bobby (with one exception near the end, which is from his girlfriend’s point of view), readers are immersed into the panic, fear, doubts and intense love of expectant fatherhood and new fatherhood.  We are also shown the pain of loss, but this is only slowly revealed.  Instead, Johnson makes readers wonder where Nia has gone, when we see her in the past chapters, but not in the present.  “Why is he a single father when they loved each other so much?” is the question in reader’s minds as we progress through the story, a question that is answered in a heartbreaking manner in the one chapter named, “Nia.” 

The book opens with Bobby’s exhaustion in the now, but also with his love for his child:  “So last week when it looked like Feather probably wasn’t ever going to sleep through the night, I lay her on my stomach and breathed her in.  My daughter is eleven days old” (4).  Lines such as, “Afterward I always kiss her, my baby, and look into her clear eyes that know everything about me, and want me to be her daddy anyway” (81) poignantly capture the innocent love of a child and the instinctual response of a new parent to do everything in his power to protect her and give her a good life.  The language employed by Johnson is breath-taking.  Bobby adores his daughter and it’s a hopeful message within a very hard, real-life scenario of young fatherhood. 

Johnson spares no details in showing how hard single-parenthood can be, especially for a teenager.  It gives a realistic look at teenage single-parenting.  Bobby falls asleep in class, spaces out and forgets his baby once, spends an entire day spray painting graffiti…he’s definitely a teenager.  But his response to his daughter is so pure, so strong, that we as readers watch him grow from the “before” Bobby who is still a kid, to the man who accepts the responsibilities of parenthood.  The theme of growing up is clear.  After he declares to the social worker, “But I love her, and even though I’m not set up for her, she’s mine.  And I’m hers,” the text continues, “When I walk out of the office I think I see ‘Just Frank,’ standing at the end of the hall.  And then I know I’m being a man, not just some kid who’s upset and wants it his way.  I’m being a man” (125). 

This rather brief story takes place within an urban, middle-class African-American family.  The beautiful cover shows a photograph of a strong African-American teenage boy holding a tiny sleeping baby in pink.  His expression looks both lost and stunned.  The image captures Bobby’s experiences in losing one person he loves tremendously only to gain another.  Other than the cover, there are minimal cultural markers found in the book.  A few cultural markers used include references to music, such as,“jazz, Motown, or reggae music always playing in the background,” (19)—three music styles often associated with African American culture -- and a lovely description of Feather and Coco being “the same caramel color” (35).  This book does a good job of showing, “a range of African American values and lifestyles,” (Hudson, qt. by Vardell) as Bobby’s family loves to travel and has bright colors and styles of various countries in their home, whereas Nia’s family lives with white walls, simple style and a quiet home in Chelsea. 

For the most part, this book focuses more on the experience of being a teen single father more than the experience of being a teen African-American.  Teens of all races and socio-economic statuses experience teen pregnancies, although statistics do show that Hispanic and Non-Hispanic Black teens experience more teen pregnancies than those of other races.  "Non-Hispanic black youth, Hispanic/Latino youth, American Indian/Alaska Native youth, and socioeconomically disadvantaged youth of any race or ethnicity experience the highest rates of teen pregnancy and childbirth.  Together, black and Hispanic youth comprised 57% of U.S. teen births in 2011" (CDC, n.p.) 

Our textbook, Multicultural Literature and Response, states, “A young African American child might be taken into the home of elderly grandparents.  In such arrangements, children have a sense they belong to an extended family clan, not merely to their parents.  Uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents have considerable power within the family unit and may take responsibility for the care and rearing of children and for teaching appropriate skills and values” (98). 

However, in this story, Bobby’s mother, who is also African-American, is very deliberately hands-off.  “Mom always shuts [her door] tight.  She says so she wouldn’t be tempted to do what most grandmothers would do.  Take over.  There are still a whole bunch of times I want her to take over, even more than I feel right about having.  But she never does.  She only ever changed, fed, or rocked Feather to sleep when I didn’t need her help.  But she warned me.  She said I was the parent.  She was only the grandparent” (101).  The mother also laid down the rule that, “In the dictionary next to ‘sitter,’ there is not  a picture of Grandma” (14).  This family structure seems to be in contrast to the African-American family system described in the textbook.  However, he does still live at home (first with his mother and then with his more involved and helpful father), which not all family units would allow.   At the end of the story, Bobby chooses to move to Ohio, where his brother lives.  Bobby’s brother may live in town, but Bobby chooses an apartment and lives alone with his daughter. 


"Each nuanced chapter feels like a poem in its economy and imagery; yet the characters-Bobby and the mother of his child, Nia, particularly, but also their parents and friends, and even newborn Feather- emerge fully formed." --Publishers Weekly, June 16, 2003.

"This Printz and Coretta Scott King Award winner has one of the best covers ever put to a teen book, depicting a beautiful and devoted father cradling a sleeping infant.  It is almost a shame that the awards stickers cover so much of it.:"-- Library Journal, March 23, 2009.

"Gr 8 and up- In this lyrical novel, 16 year old Bobby narrates his journey into teenage fatherhood, struggling to balance school, parenting and friends who simply do not comprehend his new role and his breathtaking love for his daughter.  Winner of the 2004 SRT Coretta Scott King Author Award and the 2004 YALSA Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence." --School Library Journal, Oct. 1, 2004.

2004 Coretta Scott King Award Author
2004 Michael L. Printz Award
2004 YALSA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults


  • This book is a companion novel to Heaven.  Read the first novel and trace the character growth of Bobby using character maps, as described on page 102 of Multicultural Literature for Children (Smole and Oswald.)
  • Write a poem about something you love.
  • Have students interview their parents about what they recall about what it was like to have a baby in the house. 


The writing is beautiful, but the story is heartbreaking at the end.  I found myself wishing for a different conclusion, but I know the point is that had Nia not suffered what she did, Feather would have been adopted.  Instead, Bobby won’t let Feather go.  It’s precious and gorgeous, but not a book I plan to reread, because it was too sad for me. I am definitely glad I read it once, though.

Works Referenced:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  “About Teen Pregnancy.”  Atlanta, GA:   CDC. Web. http://www.cdc.gov/teenpregnancy/aboutteenpreg.htm.  Accessed Sept 12, 2013.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  “Overview” Culture 2 Af Am Lit: Overview.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed Sept 12, 2013.  

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