Johnson, Angela. The First Part Last. Simon Pulse, 2003. 132p. Grades 6 and up. Realistic Fiction. (2004 Printz Award).
Sixteen year old Bobby decides not to place his daughter Feather up for adoption and to face life as a single parent after complications arise during his girlfriend Nia’s pregnancy and delivery. Through his first person narration and an alternating “Then/Now” structure, Bobby shares the failures, triumphs, and day-to-day struggles of his first few months as a teen father as well as the complicated family dynamics that arise from his decision to keep the baby.
Analysis- This book had the perfect storm of YA writing—great pacing, excellent characterization, an accessible style, and authentic themes and plot events. It is, in my mind, the most accessible of the Printz winners, along with Walter Dean Myers’ Monster. I thought the alternating “Then” and “Now” chapters moved the story along at a good clip and upped the level of reader participation by fracturing the timeline of Bobby, Nia, and Feather’s story somewhat. As far as the characterization goes, all the major characters in the novel seem fully fleshed out and many of them seem to subvert common stereotypes about urban teens and teen parents in particular. Bobby’s first-person narration gives readers insight into the fear, exhaustion, and elation he feels at the awe-inspiring responsibility of being a father, and he truly becomes a multi-dimensional person in the reader’s eyes, not just a cipher for some message of the author.
Johnson’s writing style is clear, easy to read, and almost poetic in its spare style, and I think it would be really appealing to teens, especially reluctant readers who might shy away from more convoluted writing styles. I also think the contemporary setting and authentic plot would make this book particularly attractive to teen readers. I would recommend this book to just about anyone, and I really hold Johnson up as an example of an author who can say a lot with very few words. Although one of the more conventional Printz winners, The First Part Last stands out for its clarity of style, accessibility, and engaging characterization—qualities sure to speak to educators, parents, and especially teens themselves.