The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

first-part-last

Bobby is a pretty normal 16-year-old boy growing up in New York City. He plays a little basketball, he likes to hang out at the arcade with his best friends, and he’s getting by in high school. But his life changes very quickly when he learns that his girlfriend, Nia, is having a baby.

Bobby is a thoughtful young man, and he has a lot to think about as he tries to grow up very quickly. His love for his baby daughter, Feather, is strong, but it’s tough for a sixteen year old to always make the right choices.  And being responsible for another person means that the stakes for his choices are suddenly much higher.

Bobby does screw up sometimes in the book, but The First Part Last is not really a book about plot or action. The narrative is not linear – it slides around between his life before Feather was born and his life now. Each short chapter illuminates a small part of how Bobby is dealing with his new responsibilities. Nia appears only in the “then” chapters that take place before Feather is born, and the reader doesn’t learn why until a devastating series of chapters near the end of the book, including a single chapter from Nia’s perspective. It’s a beautiful, poetically written book, like all of Angela Johnson’s novels. The short chapters, realistic and engaging subject matter, likeable narrator, and the length of the book would seem to make it a great pick for reluctant readers, but I think the constant time shifts and the lack of a straightforward plot might be a little bit confusing for some readers.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy

When Bud is sent from the orphanage into yet another abusive host family, he has finally had enough. He runs away with only the clothes on his back and his battered suitcase, using a few small clues to search for the father he has never known. Bud hikes and hitches his way from Flint to Grand Rapids, meeting colorful characters and having a few adventures along the way. Bud eventually finds the man he believes to be his father, band-leader Curtis E. Calloway, who is cranky and distrustful of Bud. While Calloway does not turn out to be Bud’s real father, he finds a home with Calloway and his traveling band, and learns about his real family in the process.

Curtis’ evocation of African-American lives in Depression-era Michigan is masterful, and Bud’s narration is funny and frank. This is definitely a middle grade novel, with a ten year old main character. However, Bud’s wise-beyond-his-years narrative voice may win over some older readers, especially readers who are interested in this period of history or who enjoy historical fiction. Bud’s story and his voice are both affecting, as demonstrated by the book’s status as both a Newbery and a Coretta Scott King Award winner.