Sunday, July 8, 2007

The First Part Last

Johnson, Angela. (2003). The First Part Last. New York: Simon Pulse. ISBN-13:9780689849237.


Things have to change.

I’ve been thinking about it. Everything. And when Feather opens her eyes and looks up at me, I already know there’s change. But I figure if the world were really right, humans would live life backward and do the first part last. They’d be all knowing in the beginning and innocent in the end.

Bobby’s got a brand new baby girl, Feather. But Bobby is a typical city kid who’d rather spend his time hanging out with his friends, K-Boy and J.L. Where’s the baby’s mother? And weren’t they planning on giving the baby up for adoption? Wasn’t that supposed to be the smarter decision? So they could both go to college? Then, why is the baby-fresh Feather lying on Bobby’s stomach?

Fred and Mary sat real still, and for a while I thought what I just told them about Nia being pregnant had turned both of them to stone.

It had been a long time since either of them ever agreed on anything.

So I waited. I waited to hear how they’d been talking to me for years about this. How we all talked about respect and responsibility. How Fred and me had taken the ferry out to Staten Island and talked about sex, to and from the island. And didn’t we go together and get me the condoms? What the hell about those pamphlets Mary put beside my bed about STDs and teenage pregnancy?

How did this happen? Where was my head? Where was my sense? What the hell were we going to do?

And then, not moving and still quiet, my pops just starts to cry.

But all of it was going to be okay. Bobby’s and Nia’s parents had promised to help with the baby. Nia says, “Yeah, I know—but in the end, it’s all up to us… I don’t want to do it… I don’t want to be anybody’s mother. I’m not done being a kid myself. I’m way too young and so are you.”

The First Part Last is about Bobby and Nia—smart high-schoolers with plans for the future who know all about how babies are made and how to protect themselves. They both have parents who are supportive of birth control (how else do K-Boy and J.L. stay stocked up with condoms other than the basket of rubbers under Bobby’s sink… put there by his moms?). But still, they end up pregnant.

At first, they plan to keep the baby. A hybrid of the two of them, a personification of their love for each other. But Nia’s no dummy. She wants to go to college and she’s seen how hard it is to follow your dreams with a baby hanging on. So, they decide to put the baby up for adoption. A hard decision, but nothing compared to how hard their lives would be trying to stumble through it with the added responsibility of a baby.

So, why does Bobby now have a baby in his arms? Well, because this book is written in alternating chapters juxtaposing between the “now” and the “then”, we don’t know why until the end of the book: Eclampsia (also known as pregnancy-induced hypertension) has forced Nia to have the baby and has caused her to have a stroke. Now that Nia is in a “vegetative” state and living in a nursing home, Bobby decides not to go through with the adoption:

“Bobby, the baby…”
“Feather. Her name is Feather.”
“We have to think in the end what’s best for her. Are you ready for this? Do you know what raising a baby entails?”
I look at the adoption papers stacked in front of me, then fold them in half before I tear them.
“No, I don’t know anything about raising a kid. I’m sixteen and none of those people on the wall look like the kind of family me and Feather’s gonna be. But I’m doing it.”
The social worker’s head wrinkles up.
“you don’t have to do it. This baby is wanted. There’s a family that wants her. They’re set up to take her and love her—”
“But I love her, and even though I’m not set up for her, she’s mine. And I’m hers.”

This was the first young adult novel I ever read. Lucky for me, I happened upon an award-winner and a precious gem of literary merit in every sense of the words. In my honest opinion. The language is accessible but complex and while the book is short, every chapter is so pregnant with meaning that we feel we really know the characters. While the juxtaposition seems challenging at first glance, the style only heightens the tension and emotion. We spend the book getting to see Bobby worship every detail of his newborn baby girl, never being sure why he has her and why he’s alone until the end—at which point, the reader can’t help but mourning Nia as she slips into her “persistent vegetative” state and misses out on the life she was willing to give up her first-born baby for. For the chance to go on to college and build a life ready for babies to come into.

This book is particularly important to me because when I was nineteen, I had to face a similar decision. I went to college at age 16 (having graduated from an accelerated school) and was “taking a break” in order to experience the real world (ahem, in other words making more time for partying). I ended up pregnant at 19. Since I was the daughter of a single, teen-aged mother, I didn’t want to repeat all the hardships I saw my mother go through. That, and I had hopes and dreams for my life. On the other hand, I had been lonely for a long time and saw this baby as an opportunity to have someone in my life all the time—someone who had no choice but to love me—and it seemed like the only alternatives presented were to keep it and raise it on food stamps or abort it and move on. A few months later, stranded and homeless, I was presented with yet another alternative I hadn’t considered.

I found an amazing couple to adopt the baby. They were wonderful and it was an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding experience for me. I realized the reason I hadn’t considered adoption an option was because it had always been presented as a sad, depressing one. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life wondering what the baby was doing and whether it missed or hated me. I was ignorant of all the different kinds of adoption out there—like the semi-open one I ended up choosing.

That’s one of the things I like most about this book. These young kids decide that adoption is best for everyone. That even though it would be hard to give it up and to wonder how it would turn out, the baby would have a chance at a very comfortable, secure life (instead of scraping by all the time) and the parents could go back to college, having gotten a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card—a second chance—which would fuel and motivate them to make wise decisions for the rest of their lives. That’s the part I could relate to.

In the end, I applaud Bobby’s decision. He knew that he didn’t “know nothin’.” And that being a father was going to be hell, but it would be a better existence than knowing the one part left of his beloved Nia, lying in a nursing home, would be raised never knowing how great her mother was. Never knowing the love from which little Feather was born.

I love that this gives young people a chance to see all the questions that come up when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. I love that it’s an un-preachy way to let kids see that protected sex isn’t just about avoiding AIDS, but about avoiding even having to face the rough and tough decisions Bobby and Nia had to encounter.

Reviews for The First Part Last (via

From 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.

From 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. ...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.

Coretta Scott King Award
Michael L. Printz Award

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