Bobby’s a classic urban teenager. He’s restless. He’s impulsive. But the thing that makes him different is this: He’s going to be a father. His girlfriend, Nia, is pregnant, and their lives are about to change forever. Instead of spending time with friends, they’ll be spending time with doctors, and next, diapers. They have options: keeping the baby, adoption. They want to do the right thing.
If only it was clear what the right thing was.
The First Part Last won the Printz Award in 2004 and it’s popped up on so many school summer reading lists I’ve lost count. It was almost a surprise to me that I hadn’t read it until now, but it appeared on my own course syllabus, and so I checked out the library’s copy and read it in a day.
In this slim YA novel, Angela Johnson looks at teen pregnancy through the eyes of a young father. Bobby, the story’s sixteen year old narrator, admits that he was sexually irresponsible. One of the things I appreciated most about Bobby as a character was his willingness to acknowledge his decision not to use protection; he didn’t try to back-pedal, to question how it could have happened, it just did and he knew the role he played in it.
When his girlfriend, Nia, finally tells him she is pregnant, Bobby’s next decision is to stand by her while they figure out what to do with the baby. There’s a depth of caring between them that sort of surprised me, I guess, because it was ultimately refreshing. They’re teenagers, sure, but Johnson doesn’t negate their feelings for each other, and I was glad for it, mostly because Bobby’s dedication to his daughter can then not be called into question. That type of devotion is just part of his nature.
Throughout the novel, Bobby remains astonishingly cool in spite of his trepidation as he struggles to be a good man and father, dealing with exhaustion and the loss of freedoms he once knew. It is both wrenching and joyful to “watch.”
I loved the descriptions of Bobby’s childhood home: “We have overstuffed pillows and Moroccan rugs and Jacob Lawrence prints all over the walls. Color and sound is what my parents were always about. Me and my brothers grew up in a loud house with jazz, Motown, or reggae music always playing in the background and something always on the stove” (19). That brief paragraph is very telling; you can see how growing up surrounded by art and music shaped Bobby’s personality. New York as a whole also had a hand in forging his style, and the novel reflects something of an urban mentality, which is then thrown into sharp relief when Bobby moves to Heaven, Ohio, and suddenly his “town was out of some old postcard” (131-32).
The First Part Last is a novel that will strike a chord with most who read it, I think. Bobby is a sensitive, strong character, compelling and sympathetic to the core, made even more so by the mistakes he makes along the way and his struggle to right them. I was very happy to (finally) read this one.