Bobby is a sixteen-year-old father who has taken on the responsibility of caring for his infant daughter all on his own. He doesn’t get any help from his mom, his brothers have moved away, and his dad lives on the other side of town. Told in sparse, feeling first-person, the book interchanges between ‘then’ and ‘now’ (‘now’ being when Bobby has an infant daughter to take care of and ‘then’ being mostly in the year prior). I was hooked right from the first page.
Every time I passed The First Part Last in the library, I had the strong impression that it wanted to be read, and when I saw that it was the winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, that sealed the deal—Coretta Scott King, of course, was married to Martin Luther King Junior, and I highly recommend the book Stride Toward Freedom (about the Montgomery bus boycott of December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956) for a revitalized glimpse into the sort of courageous, loving, and incredible people that they were (that, however, is for another post). I could have devoured The First Part Last in one sitting—as it was, I devoured it all in one day, and this despite repeated efforts to close the book and attend to other things. No matter what, it always ended up back in my hands (at one point I was holding the book in one hand and stirring a bubbling pot of pasta with the other—I couldn’t put it down). Not knowing much about it going in had a real effect on how the bits and pieces of the story came together, and I want to leave that option open for prospective readers—but I do want to say that reading about a teenage father taking care of his baby, staying up with her all night, changing diapers, getting up three hours before school to bus her to the sitter, and just loving her so much was absolutely something else; “…then I know I’m being a man, not just some kid who’s upset and wants his way. I’m being a man” (this line comes right at the moment in the story when he decides to keep her). So many things about this book stayed with me long after reading it.
It turns out The First Part Last is actually part two in a three-part series:
Even though Heaven (as in Heaven, Ohio) is technically the first book in the series, I found that reading it second (on account of not previously knowing that it was a three-part series) was unexpectedly satisfying—they go very well in that order. Heaven actually takes place after the events of The First Part Last, and if you’ve read The First Part Last first, a simple line like “Feather loves any commercial with music in it” has the (unlikely) capacity to reach right into the middle of your heart.
A little more about the award that got this book checked out and into my backpack to begin with:
“The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.”
Angela Johnson has been the recipient of this award multiple times, as well as many others including the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and The Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. She also won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2018 “honoring her significant and lasting contribution to writing for teens.”
The First Part Last is the winner of The Coretta Scott King Book Award, The Green Mountain Book Award, The Alabama Author Award, and The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.
“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.”
Suffice to say, it comes highly recommended.