the-first-part-lastI found today’s book while searching for a title for the next installment of the library’s Teen Book Club.  The First Part Last by Angela Johnson was first published in 2003. Since that time, both the book and its author have won several honors, including the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award for demonstrating “an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” and Michael L. Printz Award for “literary excellence in young adult literature”. It’s easy to see why. The First Part Last offers an intense, gut-wrenching look at a difficult topic using spare language to convey complex emotions.

Bobby receives a bombshell for his sixteenth birthday—his girlfriend Nia is pregnant. In an instant, his world is turned upside down. Neither he nor Nia planned for this to happen. Now both are left to find a way to “do the right thing” for themselves and the baby.

Although the book is a quick read (131 pages) with a simple plot line, it stands out for its power to tell a lesser-known tale concisely and beautifully. This is one of the few books exploring teen pregnancy from the male point of view. Angela Johnson uses concrete, contemporary language to create a portal into Bobby’s complex emotions. She allows us into Bobby’s physical world—sleepless nights, high school, “new baby” smell, New York City—with all five senses at work. She only includes what is necessary to share Bobby’s experiences and to advance the story—no extra drama or dialogue here.

The story alternates between scenes in the present when Bobby is a full-time father and scenes in the past starting with Nia’s pregnancy news and ending with baby Feather’s arrival. Throughout, Bobby struggles with his new responsibilities in the no-man’s-land between being a kid and an adult. He reels, just as we do, when a plot twist toward the end packs an extra emotional punch.

I was glad to find this book again as it had been several years since I last read it. It has been a powerful, amazing experience every time I’ve picked it up. The First Part Last speaks to both teens and adults. This is a great title for individual reading, but it is even better for inter-generational reading and discussion. Be sure to have tissues on hand.

The Teen Book Club meets the first Thursday of the month from 6:00-7:00 p.m. and is open to youth in grades 6-12. The program is free; no registration is necessary. Structured by teens for teens, the group’s goals are to generate and sustain enthusiasm for recreational reading and to provide opportunities for a respectful exchange of ideas. Participants read books of their choice relating to the monthly theme chosen by the group then meet to chat about their books and their responses to the titles. There are a wide variety of titles and opinions shared. (Plus, we have snacks.) The Teen Book Club meets again on Thursday, February 4; this month’s theme is “books with a number in the title”.

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