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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Bluford High: Summer of Secrets
Paul Langan
Scholastic, 2008
Grade 6 and up (Summer of Secrets is written for 5th or 6th grade reading levels, but has content sophisticated enough for high school students)
Urban Fiction

Darcy Wills is being eaten up by her secret; but when everyone else seems to have a secret too, the load becomes too much.

Summary:

It seems like this summer is definitely the summer of secrets to Darcy Wills. Darcy has her own secret, but it seems like everyone else is keeping secrets, too. Darcy is still dealing with a sexual assault that only her parents know about. The near rape happened with a boy she’d been warned about by her former friend. After losing her good friend and boyfriend, Hakeem, when he moves away, Darcy starts dating another boy. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a predator. This secret is getting in the way of Darcy’s relationships and prohibiting her from moving on after her break up with Hakeem. She is finding it difficult to heal, developing a lot of rage and suspicion as a result. Darcy sees danger signs everywhere, sometimes in the right places. When her old friend starts dating a questionable new guy, Darcy gives her a heads up about the situation and it turns out she was right. Summer of Secrets ties up relatively neatly, Darcy takes steps toward recovery and rebuilding the relationships she lost, her parents let her in on their secret: they’re pregnant, and learns to stand up for her friends and her beliefs even when its difficult.

Critique:

This is an excellent hi-lo read, although I suspect it would have been more enjoyable had I read the book that precludes this story (Until We Meet Again). Summer of Secrets addresses the complicated emotions of rape in a competent manner, in particular stigma that can generate secrecy. I really appreciated the way that female friendship and looking out for each other was highlighted in this story.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Addresses rape, teen sex, and domestic violence.

Highlight to challengers the manner in which these issues are addressed in the book. Point out the popularity amongst students and librarians.

Selection Rationale:

The Bluford High series is a perfect example of Hi-Lo readers; these will engage students who may have a difficult time with fiction.

Highly recommended by many librarians and teachers as a hi-lo read to get reluctant and low-level readers into fiction.

Booktalking:

Reflect on the dangers of keeping secrets from Darcy’s point of view.

About the Author:

Paul Langan was born in Philadelphia in 1972, he studied creative writing in college. After working as an Assistant Editor at Townsend Press for awhile, he began writing and editing for the Bluford series.

Street Pharm
Allison van Diepen
ISBN 1-4169-11154-5
Simon Pulse, 2006
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

This life is in Ty’s blood, but times are changing and Ty has to think on his feet to survive.

Summary:

Ty took over his father’s business at age sixteen. The life of a dealer is the only life he knows, even if it did put his dad in jail. Ty tries to do everything right and keep under the radar, keep safe. He has a fake job, doesn’t spend excessively, and only lets a couple people in on his business. Even with all his precautions, life takes a turn for the worse when a new dealer, Darkman, moves into town. At the same time Ty starts seeing a new girl, Alyse, who is different from the rest of his world. Ty has to keep much of his life secret from Alyse, which becomes increasingly difficult when someone blows the whistle on his operation. Ty is hospitalized after a drive by shooting, and he has to make decisions about the type of man he wants to become: will he follow in his father’s footsteps or clean up his life?

Critique:

A good read. I found the central characters to be likable and well-formed. Street Pharm did not have the most believable voice at times. This should be a popular novel with reluctant readers, there is plenty of action and a lot of material for teachers and librarians to introduce in discussions. Overall, an excellent addition to the genre complete with positive message.

Curriculum Ties:

Street Pharm would be a good choice for an English class discussion book.

Controversy:

Drug and alcohol use, drug dealing, crime, language.

These elements of the novel are not glamorized, rather, everyone’s life is made more difficult by decisions to engage in illegal activity. Things start looking up for Ty when he decides to distance himself from that life. The language is necessary to provide an authentic feel. Refer to inclusion on ALA “best of” lists and reviews. Ask challengers to read Street Pharm through the conclusion and see if they change their mind.

Selection Rationale:

A positive book, with an ultimately uplifting ending.

ALA Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2007

“There is plenty of swearing, violence, and raunchy topics scattered in the dialogue and the action because this book takes a realistic look at life in a dangerous urban neighborhood. The author researched this story while working in a perilous inner-city Brooklyn high school. It is an eye-opening account of a nice kid who is caught between two worlds and has to make some tough decisions. It also conveys a poignant message for reluctant readers.” – VOYA

Booktalking:

Read the newspaper article about Ty’s shooting, pages 190-191.

Read page 278, about the business taking everything away from Ty.

About the Author:

Allison van Diepen is the author of three young adult novels: Snitch, Raven, and Street Pharm. Van Diepen received a BA in History from Carleton and then moved on to teaching school. She got her inspiration for Snitch and Street Pharm from her experiences as a teacher in Brooklyn. She is a high school teacher in her Canadian hometown, Ottawa.