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Saturday, January 7, 2012

'The First Part Last' Heaven #2 by Angela Johnson

From the BLURB:

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.

Bobby has Feather and Feather means everything to him. Even if she wasn’t planned. Even if the plan was for him and Nia to give Feather up for adoption. Even if Bobby was just sixteen when Nia handed him a balloon and changed his whole life. None of that matters, because either way you cut it – between now and then – Feather means everything to her daddy.

‘The First Part Last’ was the 2003 Printz-winning book from Angela Johnson.

It took me a one-way train trip to read this 131-page book. One train trip to read the book, but the story is staying with me for a lot longer than that.

Angela Johnson writes first chapters better than some authors write entire novels;

I've been thinking about it. Everything. And when Feather opens her eyes and looks up at me, I already know there’s change. But I figure if the world were really right, humans would live life backward and do the first part last. They’d be all knowing in the beginning and innocent in the end.
Then everybody could end their life on their momma or daddy’s stomach in a warm room, waiting for the soft morning light.

So begins Bobby’s first person narrative, between ‘now’ and ‘then’.

Now, Bobby is tired and worrying – he has little Feather depending on him, but some nights he just feels like curling up in his mother’s bed and being the kid taken care of, instead of daddy to his baby girl. He loves Feather – her sweet smell and pudgy baby hands. But sometimes he misses who he was before she was born.

Then, Nia and Bobby had to sit down with their parents and feel the burden of their mistake. Bobby had to watch Mrs Wilkins smile because she couldn’t deal. He had to watch his own mother bite her lip so hard that blood ran down. And Bobby has to get used to the idea of being a father – no shooting hoops with K-Boy and J.L. whenever he feels like it. No asking grandpa to babysit whenever he can’t deal. He has to start taking responsibility and getting ready for the baby. He has to get Nia tacos when she’s craving, and rub her feet when she’s aching.

Angela Johnson’s story is sublime. If you think she can’t pack a punch in 131-pages, you will be startlingly mistaken. Johnson’s novel is beautiful and thoughtful, gut-wrenching and eloquent. But what makes the story even better is that she does it all in so few pages. It takes a true maestro to move a reader to tears with a word-count that some authors spend on first chapters alone. It’s like fitting a symphony into a pop-song, and I am awed by her prowess.


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