Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The First Part Last, Printz Award, 2004

The First Part Last follows the relatively boring life of a teenage father. I say boring because all of Bobby’s actions and reactions are expected and understandable. His experiences even seem designed to be an “issue story,” a cautionary tale to teenagers about the dangers of unsafe sex. Need I emphasis how annoying those stories are to teen?

But Angela Johnson does something wonderful. She transforms a predictable, issue-heavy narrative into a vivid experience through her expert handling of voice, character, setting, and style. Booklist calls The First Part Last “poetry,” and I agree. The feel of reading it is more like reading a novel in verse than reading a novel. The narrative is clear, concise, and construed more to make an emotional impact than to spin a story.

Bobby’s voice is like we’re hearing a story he’s telling himself. His thoughts are often short, which makes him sound like a teenager. Sentence fragments emphasize his immaturity and eagerness in passages like this. “I spray black. Then red, mixed with some blue. The boy’s got to be paler. But no, maybe just some green all around him. Maybe just some more green. I’m losing wall now. It’s all got to come to an end soon.”

But the thoughts themselves are often deep and focused, which makes him seem mature. For instance, when Nia is about to break the big new, he notices a balloon. “Nia was waiting on our stoop for me with a red balloon. Just sittin’ there with a balloon looking all lost. I’ll never forget that look and how her voice shook when she said, ‘Bobby I’ve got something to tell you.’ Then she handed me the balloon.”

For Bobby, voice perfectly matches character. He’s alternately immature and mature, petty and deep, irresponsible and responsible. He loves basketball, video games, painting and pizza. He wants to have it easy sometimes. He’s scared of responsibility. He doesn’t trust his rich teacher or the rich families that could adopt his baby. When he finds out he’s a father, he wants to do the “right thing,” not just because his mom tells him too, but because he loves Nia and the baby that kicks inside her. The Then/Now sequence of the book, while confusing at first, falls into an understandable pattern, and serves to contrast Bobby’s former self and current self, as he grows from a carefree child into a responsible teen who puts the good of those he loves above his own.           

The setting of Manhattan is real, but not overbearing. The story could take place in any large city. We see Bobby’s world most often through the things he loves about his city. He says, “He loved the smell of it. Pizza on one corner, falafel and French pastries on the next . . . Couldn’t sleep without the ambulance noises and people calling to each other in the street who are just getting back from the clubs . . . He loved the sounds the kids made running to the subway, and cabs blowing by and screeching to a stop.” This passage, where Bobby takes on a third person voice to tell his own story, is particularly engaging because many of us do take a step back and think of the story of our lives when a difficult situation arises.

Themes of The First Part Last include teen pregnancy, parenting, love, grief, and sacrifice. The primary theme is accepting responsibility. Bobby’s initial decision to raise Feather may have been more emotional than rational. He says, “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.” When the social worker protests, he responds, “But I love her, and even though I’m not set up for her, she’s mine. And I’m hers.” He finally knows that his actions, his love, and his relationship to this child dictate the sacrificial responsibility it takes to raise a child instead of the selfish irresponsibility it take to give one away.

[Note: I do not believe putting a child up for adoption is always the selfish thing to do, but in Bobby's particular case it is. Bobby has a stable extended family and material resources to benefit the child. He and Nia do not choose to give the baby away for the baby's benefit, they do it for their own convenience, which is selfish.]

My favorite passage is the chapter where Bobby discovers Nia’s been taken to the hospital and then sees Feather for the first time. Angela Johnson perfectly captures the raw emotion of a boy running, screaming all the way to the hospital, and feeling like a child as he gives in to grief. She slows down her prose as she brings Feather to her father for the first time, giving the reader time to move from sadness to joy. Then as Bobby holds his three day old daughter who cried through the night, she sticks us with the theme in a way that feels absolutely right and natural. “I’m supposed to suck it up and do all the right things if I can, even if I screw it up and have to do it over.”

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