The First Part Last
Angela Johnson
ISBN 0-689-84922-2
Simon & Schuster, 2003
Grades 6 to 12
Urban Fiction/Parenting

When Bobby learns his girlfriend, Nia, is pregnant his emotions are mixed. Now that he has Feather, he has nothing but love for her, but daily life is a struggle as a sixteen-year-old single father.

Summary:

Kids raising kids. Sixteen-year-old Bobby learns about the challenges of parenthood sooner than expected when his girlfriend, Nia, becomes pregnany. Bobby struggles to make it to school, stay awake in class, and be a man after his daughter Feather is born. Bobby is the sole care-taker of Feather. Although he lives with his mother, she gives little support and the baby’s mother and maternal grandparents are absent. Bobby’s story is told through passages highlighting the differences between “then” (before Feather is born and Nia was in his life) and “now”. The chapters describe how Bobby and Nia (and their parents) dealt with the news of the pregnancy, their decision to put the baby up for adoption, and finally an explanation of why Bobby has Feather. Due to complications in her pregnancy and the birth of Feather, Nia is in a persistant vegetative state.

Critique:

The First Part Last is a touching look at what teenage fatherhood must be like. Bobby is a frank and honest narrator who lets the reader in on the bad as well as the good. Every sentence echoes with his love for his daughter and the journey he is on to become a man. Johnson also shows the hurt and love felt by Nia and Bobby’s parents and friends after they announce the pregnancy.  I read this short book in one sitting and loved every moment of it. Simply put – incredible. Bobby wishes that he could begin life wise and finish innocent and pure, like his daughter, a valuable sentiment for other kids who feel like they are growing up too fast.

Curriculum Ties:

This book should simply be included in English classes because it is so beautifully written.

Controversy:

Premarital sex, illegal activity, teen parenting.

Refer challengers to reviews, ask them to read the entire book.

Selection Rationale:

This is such a touching and elegant book, it warrants inclusion without question. It is also important for its portrayal of a teen father stepping up and loving his child.

The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, 2004

“…from the first page, readers feel the physical reality of Bobby’s new world: what it’s like to hold Feather on his stomach, smell her skin, touch her clenched fists, feel her shiver, and kiss the top of her curly head. Johnson makes poetry with the simplest words in short, spare sentences that teens will read again and again. The great cover photo shows the strong African American teen holding his tiny baby in his arms.” – Booklist

“…any flaws in the plot are overshadowed by the beautiful writing. Scenes in which Bobby expresses his love for his daughter are breathtaking.” – School library Journal

Booktalking:

Read the first two pages aloud (Bobby wants the first part to happen last).

Read the section in which Bobby wishes he could ask for a doctor’s note to get out of parenting, page 25.

Read the final chapter, ‘Heaven’, about Bobby and Feather’s new beginning, pages 130-131.

About the Author:

Angela Johnson was born in 1961 in Tuskegee, Alabama. She has written more than ten books for young adults, and is a recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award.

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Bronx Masquerade
Nikki Grimes
ISBN 0-14-250189-1
Puffin, 2002
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

What happens when eighteen students decide to give up the masquerade?

Summary:

Mr. Ward, a high school teacher in the Bronx develops open mic days in his classroom. The opportunity for self-expression and exploration is empowering for many students. Some students were already poets, some write for the first time. Through their poetry, the students break down barriers and destroy stereotypes. They explore self-esteem, body image, abuse, ethnicity, stereotypes, friendship, and art. These are teens who are daily participating in the Bronx masquerade and ready to break out of the box. Their experience culminates in a newspaper article, (finally, one that focuses on teens in a positive light), and a school assembly where the students read their poems.

Critique:

The format of this book is interesting and will appeal to readers. Grimes is an excellent writer, successfully developing eighteen distinct voices in Bronx Masquerade. Many readers will find themselves inspired by this positive story.

Curriculum Ties:

Incorporate Bronx Masquerade into classroom units on poetry or drama; excellent read aloud option; would be great for a drama class.

Controversy:

Addresses issues of sexuality and abuse in a non-explicit manner.

Refer challengers to reviews and awards won by Bronx Masquerade, as well as Nikki Grimes’ reputation as a young adult author.

Selection Rationale:

This nontraditional format will interest readers and provide lots of fodder for discussion. The story has a positive tone and really shows the importance of portraying teens in a positive manner.

ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2007

ALA Quick Picks for Young Adult Readers, 2003

“This inventive literary format encourages expression and just might have students begging for an open mike in their own classrooms.” – School Library Journal

Booktalking:

Select any of the poems written by Mr. Ward’s students to read aloud.


About the Author:

Nikki Grimes grew up in New York and has been writing since the age of six. She is a poet and novelist, although she claims the title “poet” more readily. She has written many award winning books, including three novels for young adults.

Dope Sick
Walter Dean Myers
ISBN 978-0061214776
Amistad, 2009
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

What if you witnessed your death before it happened? What if you got a second chance? Lil J re-lives the drama of his past and looks into the trauma of the future to discover where he went wrong.
Summary:

Lil J is broke sick. He is beaten down. He heads out to apply for a job at the Home Depot and get his prescription filled. He feels confident, looks good. But the line for interviews stretches out the door and his mom is addicted to the painkillers he’s picking up.

When the opportunity arises to get in on a high paying drug deal, Lil J seizes the opportunity. Rico, his partner in the deal is a heroin addict, skimming off the top of the bags before the sale. When Rico and Lil J meet the buyer something doesn’t feel right – he’s a cop. Rico shoots the cop, leaving him in critical condition, and the two run.             Lil J is shot in the arm by a second undercover cop.

The cops are after Lil J. Rico was caught and named Lil J as the shooter. Injured and on the run, Lil J seeks refuge in a crack house. He timidly strikes up conversation with a man named Kelly who he takes to be a crackhead. Lil J soon learns that things are not always what they seem.

A TV in Kelly’s room shows the street scene outside – cops searching for Lil J. Kelly has a remote control and a TV that can show Lil J’s future, and its not looking so hot. Shocked by the image of him poised on the building’s rooftop, surrounded by police, holding a gun to his own head, Lil J wishes he had the power to change the past to fix this future. According to Kelly, he can alter the past and create a new beginning. He just needs to figure out what to change.

Most of the book is Lil J reflecting on his life and the decisions he has made. Initially, Lil J makes it seem like he’s led a life free of missteps, but over the course of the book the truth comes out. Lil J is a father, a drug user, a minor criminal, he went to jail, and failed at school. As Kelly fast forwards and rewinds with Lil J, Lil J becomes more self aware.

Critique:

Dope Sick is a stunning addition to Walter Dean Myers’ works. This novel is a breathtaking read. Incorporating both harsh realities and the supernatural, Dope Sick will resonate with readers who have ever wished they could take something back. I cannot say enough good things about this story, the writing is impeccable, the is story universal, and the emotions are real. Watching Lil J watch himself about to commit suicide is heart wrenching.  I loved this book from beginning to end.

Curriculum Ties:

Use Dope Sick in a unit on magic realism or the literary device of flashbacks.

Controversy:

Violence, violence against law enforcement, drug use, teen sex.

Indicate to challengers the importance of Walter Dean Myers in the field of young adult literature. Have challengers read the entire book and refer them to reviews.

Selection Rationale:

A new book from Walter Dean Myers is too important to overlook in a list like this. I found Dope Sick to be an extraordinary contribution to young adult literature. I think this is a title that could be used in advanced English classes as well as one to lure in reluctant readers.

ALA Quick Pick Nomination, 2010

Booktalking:

Summarize Lil J’s situation, and the decisions put before him.

What does Kelly think of Lil J?

About the Author:

Walter Dean Myers was born in 1937 in West Virginia. He was raised by adoptive parents in Harlem. After dropping out of high school at the age of seventeen, Myers joined the army. He has written over fifty fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults and is one of the most critically acclaimed young adult authors around.

Broken China
Lori Aurelia Williams
ISBN 0-689-86878-2
Simon & Schuster, 2005
Grades 8 and up
Urban Fiction

China thought being a mother at fourteen was tough, now she’s about to face something even harder.

Summary:

China Cup Cameron is fourteen and a mother to two-year-old Amina. She has trouble keeping up in class, with keeping up with life. After experimenting one time with her best friend, Trip, China is pregnant. She isn’t a regular kid any more, but she loves her daughter. With the help of her wheelchair bound uncle, Simon, China provides a safe and loving home for little Amina. Unfortunately, tragedy befalls the family when Amina suddenly dies at the babysitters’ due to a heart condition. Both China and Simon are heartbroken by Amina’s death. China is ruined by grief; she drops out of school and falls deeper and deeper into depression. Wanting to provide the best for her daughter even in death, China pulls out all of the stops for Amina’s funeral (egged on by a sketchy funeral director). Of course, the funeral puts China into massive debt, so she has to find a job. The job market is tough for a fourteen year old high school dropout, but eventually China gains employment at a kind of coat check girl at a strip club named Obsidian Queens. Life gets even rougher as China’s relationships with her family and friends change as a result of her employment. She makes new connections, befriending women in trouble and discovering the manipulations she has become the victim of. China is damaged by the death of her daughter and her experiences at Obsidian Queens, but her story ends on a hopeful note.

Critique:

Watching China sink into the hole of both her and society’s making is difficult. At the beginning of the book China is truly trying to make the best of a tough situation, and is finding wonderful support (it takes many different forms) in her friends and family. Her depression and ways of dealing with the tragedy are evoke real emotion, but the plot is burdened by too many setbacks and hardships. Williams developed an interesting cast of characters, who I found myself rooting for.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Portrayal of teen sex, prostitution, and drug use.

China reflects at the beginning of Broken China: “Before I had Amina I had seen pregnant girls on TV that were only a little older than I was when I got a big belly” (p. 4). Teen pregnancy is a reality and this story does little to romanticize or glorify the life of a teen parent or even teen sex. China was obviously not ready to have sex, experiencing no pleasure or sense of emotional bonding with her partner, Trip. Sex was weird and awkward for China, and she didn’t keep doing it. Likewise, prostitution and drug use are frowned upon through the tone of the book. Broken China is loud and clear regarding these issues.

Selection Rationale:

China’s age at the beginning of this novel will help it appeal to younger readers, will more mature content will still make it relevant to older teens. This would be an excellent selection for a mixed ages book group. I found myself emotionally involved with the characters in this book.

American Library Association’s Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2006

“…the emotional life of the story rings true. Readers will be drawn in by the portraits of strong individuals working hard to re-shape their lives.” – The Horn Book Magazine, March/April, 2005
“Williams is a master of character development and genuinely realized emotional growth. Her plotting almost boils
over with big problems, but China is so compelling and engaging in her responses to situations that readers will care more about cheering her along than about the author’s operatic predilections.” – School Library Journal, March 2005

Booktalking:

Why is China broken?

According to China why was it so important to have a beautiful funeral?

About the Author:

Lori Aurelia Williams, an avid reader as a child, holds a Master’s in English from the University of Texas. She is the author of two other young adult books: When Kambia Elaine Flew In from Neptune (2000) and Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues (2003). She received a James A. Michener scholarship while in school.