Plot Summary: Sixteen-year-old Bobby did not mean to become a father at such a young age, but he is, and his life will never be the same. Switching back and forth between “then,” before the baby was born and “now,” after his daughter Feather’s arrival into the world, The First Part Last tells the story of Bobby’s transition from regular old teenager to teen dad. Before Feather is born, Bobby and his pregnant girlfriend Nia are pressured by many of the adults in their lives to put the baby up for adoption, and the young soon-to-be parents want to do the right thing for their child, but what is the right thing? And is the right thing for their baby the same as the right thing for them? Bobby is conflicted and confused, but when Feather is in his arms Bobby realizes that he has never seen a more perfect being and he has never felt more love for anyone. Ever.
Critical Evaluation: The First Part Last is a touching and down-to-earth story, which starts with a beautiful front cover image depicting a young African American man gently holding an infant in his arms. Johnson’s writing is warm and imbued with emotion. Her ability to present an authentic perspective of an urban male teen is laudable, and her tender depictions of Bobby and Feather together are heartwarming. Bobby is presented as a regular 16-year-old kid with friends, and school, and a girlfriend but also as a young man who is gentle, sweet, loving, and completely dedicated to his infant daughter. Navigating his different roles and different worlds is tricky; it is hard being a teen dad. Bobby is exhausted, staying up nights with his baby. But, Bobby’s loving descriptions of Feather’s hands and her smell and how soft the curls on the top of her head are when he kisses her bring readers into the room, feeling what he is feeling. Many of Johnson’s passages are poetic. A person would be hard pressed not to empathize with Bobby and hope everything works out well for him and Feather. Winner of the 2004 Coretta Scott King Book Award and the 2004 Michael L. Printz Award.
Reader’s Annotation: At sixteen, Bobby goes to high school and hangs out with his good friends. He never imagined he’d be a father already, and it’s a hard job, but when he takes his daughter Feather into his arms he realizes his enormous capacity for love.
Information about the Author: Angela Johnson has always loved books and being read aloud to, as she says, “Book people came to life,” (http://aalbc.com/authors/angela.htm). So, it is no wonder that she started writing in her diary as a child and has continued writing ever since.
In 1998, Johnson wrote Heaven, a Coretta Scott King Award Winning novel that contains the characters of Bobby and Feather. The events of Heaven, though written before, take place after the events of The First Part Last. In Heaven, Bobby and Feather become friends with main character Marley. Bobby and Feather’s family history is not expanded upon in Heaven, so Heaven readers who were intrigued by those characters have the chance to learn more in The First Part Last. Likewise, readers who enjoyed The First Part Last get to see the next stage in the lives, albeit with less detail, of Bobby and Feather in Heaven.
Genre: Issues, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction
Subgenre/Theme: Issues: Physical, Mental, and Emotional Concerns: Pregnancy and Teen Parents
Topics Covered: Teen Pregnancy, Sexuality, Parenthood, Fatherhood, Coming of Age, Growing Up
Curriculum Ties: English, Personal Narrative
- You are 16 years old and you are told that in nine months you are going to be a parent. Pause… What do you do? How do feel?
- Read one of the passages where Bobby describes Feather, ask questions about that. Does he sound like your average 16-year-old? Why? Why not? Does he love her?
Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 15 -19
Challenge Issues: Teen sex, teen pregnancy, some adult language. In response to any challenges, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won two prestigious awards from the American Library Association: Coretta Scott King and Michael L. Printz.
Why is this book included? I read and enjoyed Heaven, which is for a slightly younger audience, and was excited to find that Johnson has also written this award-winning book for teens. Also, It is important for a collection to tell many different stories from many different perspectives. The First Part Last provides the unique perspective of a teen father raising his baby daughter.
Plot Summary: Fifteen-year-old Tyrell does not have what anyone would call an easy life. His father is in prison for illegal activities he participated in trying to earn money to pay the ret and put food on the family’s dinner table. His mother seems unable, or unwilling, to provide for or even take care of either of her two sons; Tyrell seems to be the only one looking out for his seven-year-old brother, Troy. The family’s financial problems are so dire that they can’t make the rent payments on their apartment in the projects, and, so their shelter is being provided by the New York City Emergency Assistance Unit. Tyrell calls it “the E-A-U,” and it is not a place he or anyone he knows wants to be living. But, living there, Tyrell is, in the roach-infested Bennett Motel, “The place look like a bombed-out building from the outside, like something you see in them war movies. Inside it ain’t no better. The place stink like old sneakers, probably ‘cause there ain’t no fresh air in here,” (Booth, 2006, p. 19).
At the EAU Tyrell meets Jasmine, a teenage girl in an equally difficult family situation. Tyrell and Jasmine hit it off, they can understand each other in ways Tyrell’s other friends cannot, and Tyrell finds Jasmine extremely attractive. But this attraction is complicated by the fact that Tyrell loves his girlfriend, Novisha, very much and has his whole future planned out with her. Confused by his feelings and living in chaos, Tyrell has a lot on his mind, too much, in fact, for him to bother going to school, a place that he feels is useless. But, even with all of these obstacles, Tyrell comes up with a plan to make some money and get his family an apartment. Is Tyrell a survivor? Will his plan work?
Critical Evaluation: Written in the language of the streets, Tyrell, portrays a stark and harsh world, where a fifteen-year-old is left with way more responsibility than he should have. The indignities and difficulties of homelessness are palpable and Booth’s descriptions of settings provide realistic and disturbing images of the reality that families like Tyrell’s face daily. The story was born of Booth’s experiences as a caseworker, helping families in crisis in New York City, lending it authenticity and veracity. Tyrell’s voice is strong and presents his conflicts in a such a genuine way that readers will likely feel connected to Tyrell and those who have been where he is will hear themselves in his voice, and readers who have not experienced what Tyrell is going through will wonder, “what would I do in that situation?” The words in this novel are carefully chosen and put together. The characters are multi-dimensional, their complexity parallels the complexity of Tyrell’s world, a world beautifully and painfully rendered in Booth’s novel. My one concern about the story is that Tyrell’s mother is portrayed in a stereotypical way as lazy and neglectful and someone who takes advantage of the system. While I do not doubt that there are people who fit this description, it is important to point this out, to make sure that a collection contains a diversity of books that portray urban life, so readers have a chance to see a variety of characters and situations. Additionally, this issue, as well as many of the books’ themes, would make excellent class or book group discussion topics.
Reader’s Annotation: Homeless and broke, fifteen-year-old Tyrell doesn’t have it easy. With his father in prison and his mother is in denial, it seems up to him to care for his seven-year-old little brother and navigate New York City’s social services agencies.
Information about the Author: Coe Booth grew up in the Bronx, NY, and held several jobs working to help families in crisis in the Bronx. The story of Tyrell was inspired by real teens Booth knew and helped, and the book Tyrell grew out of a writing assignment for a creative writing class.
Genre: Issues, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction
Subgenres/Themes: Issues: Life is Hard: Homelessness and Foster Living
Topics Covered: Homelessness, Poverty, Truancy, Love, Racism, Incarceration, sexuality
Curriculum Ties: Social Science
Booktalking Ideas: The description of Tyrell’s anger, conversation between Tyrell and his mother where she suggests he should sell drugs to support the family.
Reading Level/Interest Age: 15-19
Challenge Issues: Sexuality, sexual activity, language, smoking, drug use, truancy, illegal activities
Why is this book included? Tyrell was well received by critics and won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel. It is included in this blog because of its excellence as a novel and because it provides a unique and often underrepresented perspective to a young adult collection.
Jones, P. (2007). Tyrell. Multicultural Review, 16(1), 94.
Margolis, R. (2007). A Bronx Tale. School Library Journal, 53(2), 32.
Prince, J. (2009). Keeping It Real: An Interview with Coe Booth. Teacher Librarian, 36(4), 62-3.
Soriano, C. (2006). Tyrell. School Library Journal, 52(11), 129-130.