Reviews: Heaven and The First Part Last, Angela Johnson

I am having an absolute orgy of reading today.  So far today I have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, the book of this website, Peter and Max (well, I finished Peter and Max, I didn’t start it today), The First Part Last, and The Pinhoe Egg.  IT IS AMAZING.  I started around nine-forty this morning, and I just cannot believe how quickly these books are zipping by me.  I am taking a break now because I can’t decide which of my books to read next.

When I went to the library for The First Part Last, which I’ve wanted to read for ages but just couldn’t do because I forgot its title and everything about it except it had a teen pregnancy (thanks to Black-Eyed Susan’s for the reminder!), I saw it was a very small book.  Very small and short, and that made me sad because I had heard it was wonderful, so I selected another Angela Johnson book to read as well – if she is so great, better to have two books by her than one, right?  I chose Heaven because the girl on the cover looked luminous:

I read Heaven first because The First Part Last was in large print and I felt I couldn’t be bothered with large print that evening.  Heaven is about a girl called Marley who always gets letters from her uncle Jack, and is responsible for sending him money through the Western Union.  Eventually (spoilers, I suppose, though I saw this coming) she learns that her uncle Jack is really her father, and she finds it difficult to deal with.  With the support of her closest friend Shoogy, and Bobby and his baby Feather, who she babysits for (Feather, she baby-sits, not Bobby), she eventually comes to terms with it.

When I finished Heaven I thought: Oh.  Angela Johnson writes this sort of book.  Issue Books.  This Issue was adoption; the Issue of The First Part Last will be teenage pregnancy.  I thought Angela Johnson was a bit like Caroline B. Cooney is, when Caroline B. Cooney writes about Issues – gentle and predictable, and eventually everyone lives more or less happily ever after.

As soon as I started The First Part Last, I decided I was wrong.  The first two pages convinced me I was wrong.  It turns out she wrote The First Part Last a good bit later, five years later, and you can see she’s grown as a writer.  The First Part Last has a confidence with words and plot that Heaven lacks.  The narrator is Bobby – Bobby from Heaven!  I was totally excited to see him again! – and he talks about his daughter Feather, how he raises her by himself.  The book skips around in time, from the present time of Bobby and Feather living with Bobby’s mother, then his father; to the days of Nia’s pregnancy and how he struggled to deal with it.

It’s a lovely, lovely book.  Just beautifully written.  You know how some books give the impression that they flowed straight out of the author – I nearly always feel this way about Diana Wynne Jones’s books – and others feel (for better or worse) crafted?  The First Part Last feels crafted, for decidedly better.  Oh it was so good.  I want to try Angela Johnson’s other books, the ones she wrote between Heaven and The First Part Last, to discover when all the awesome kicked in.

It seems to me it can be difficult to transcend that feeling of being an Issue book, when it’s YA.  Laurie Halse Anderson managed it in Speak, I thought, but not in Wintergirls (or possibly I just didn’t connect with Wintergirls because it was too upsetting and I was distancing myself); I remember a book called Swallowing Stones that absolutely didn’t do it at all.  I mentioned Caroline B. Cooney – I always liked her books best when they didn’t seem to be trying to deal with Issues – so the Face on the Milk Carton books were not favorites, and neither was that one about burning churches down.  (This comes up in Heaven, which is I suppose the reason I made the connection to Caroline B. Cooney.)

What do you think?  How can YA authors steer clear of being an Issue Book?  Or should they?

Other reviews of Heaven:

Just Books

Other reviews of The First Part Last:

1 More Chapter
things mean a lot
Educating Petunia
Thoughts of Joy

Let me know if I missed yours!

  • I love days spent immersed in books!

    • Me too! It was lovely! All books all day, and I had a snuggly puppy to cuddle. 🙂

  • I know I read Face on the Milk Carton ages ago, but it was so far back I can’t really remember my impressions of it.

    • It’s sort of silly – you know, her parents aren’t her real parents, and she has to go back to live with her biological family. My sister likes those books better than I do.

  • Gah! I am so behind on posts so I am commenting for, like, four in one. I have so much to say. Here is a list:

    -I tried to comment on your Hobbit post, but it disappeared. The comment was going to have to do something with Smaug, the Balrog, Gollum, and Elrond. Anywho, looooove LotR. Did I mention that I totally cried about 20398402 times during the RotK movie? Ahhhg.

    -Very jealous that you’ve read Peter and Max. Very jealous indeed.

    -Yay for reading days! I got snowed in today and only finished one book. There is always tomorrow!

    -I feel ya on being review back logged. I don’t remember the last time I was all caught up.

    -Caroline B. Cooney?! Did you perhaps love the time travelling series? Because I sure did, and had a huge, pre-teen crush on her beau.

    I think that’s all. Oh golly.

    • Hahaha, oh no, sorry about the Hobbit post! I meant to schedule it for this afternoon, but I accidentally posted it and then I quickly went back and edited it to be posted later on today. I’m sorry! It will return soon!

      I actually hardly remember the time travelling series, except there was a fainting couch. I remember that incredibly clearly, there was a fainting couch and the girl from the present didn’t think much of it. I’d read the books again but they’re too short and I’d read them quickly and then I’d be even more backed up. 😛

  • The best way to spend the day! And isn’t deciding which book to read next a great dilemma!

    • I have too many to pick from! I keep looking at my bookshelves and finding more books I need to reread. 🙂

  • I love days spent just reading and relaxing. I don’t mind reading “issues” books. Teenagers go through a lot of things and their ability to find these kinds of books, can help them get through their problems. For teens who don’t go through these issues it can help them have more empathy.

    • I guess for me it depends on the issue and how well the author explores it. I get really frustrated with “issues” books that address the issue perfunctorily or lack emotional honesty.

  • I love YA books and am now looking forward to read one which I only found out about yesterday – Heather Morrall – hers are ‘issue-based ‘YA but her first one, The Echo Glass, seems to have done extremelywell, and her next one, Shrink looks very interesting.

    here’s the link, if you’re interested
    http://www.ruberypress.co.uk

    Incidently, she probably got her writing talent from her mother, Clare Morrall -her book, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize

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  • Ari

    I MUST read Angela Johnson’s Heaven trilogy, especially because I love the gorgeous cover of the Sweet, Hereafter.

    And I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans (I really like the Saints, have heard about how amazing Mardi Gras is and after seeing the Princess & the Frog, i knew that I HAD to get down there someday. Hopefully soon).

    And ugh, COLLEGE? Those kind of comments make me realize why we do need Black History Month. I’m glad to have discovered your blog 🙂

    • I didn’t realize they were a trilogy – I was surprised and pleased to find Bobby and Feather in The First Part Last. I definitely want to get the rest of Angela Johnson’s books. I think I read somewhere she has a new one coming out later on this year? I’m excited!

      Mardi Gras can get a little crazy in New Orleans, to be fair! It’s a bit much for me; doing tailgating for a whole evening for LSU games is about as much party as I can manage, and then I have to go home and sleep. 😛 The idea of New Orleans Mardi Gras makes me sleepy.

      Yeah, this girl used to say a lot of things that were either straight-up racist or bordering on it – I tried to limit our contact. :

  • A reading orgy sounds just lovely! I love the read-a-thons for that very reason. 🙂

    This book sounds very charming. I am glad that you were proved wrong and were able to enjoy the book!

    • It was amazing. I never give myself permission to just sit and read, for some reason; even when I make plans on a weekend to do it, something usually comes up. I may try the readathon this year, though I’m afraid I will end up super cranky with no sleep. 😛

  • OMG, the other day I finally read Johnson’s First Part Last. It was so beautiful I read it in one sitting. The end had me in tears.

    The next day I got Heaven. Beautiful.

    I loved Anderson’s Speak, still one of my favorite YA novels but didn’t care for Wintergirls – it read like forced verse.

    I like YA issue books as long the author remembers they are writing a story and not a pamphlet. An author must find the right balance.

    • Johnson writes beautifully – I am looking forward to reading more of her books.

      Oh excellent choice of words, “a story and not a pamphlet”. That’s definitely one thing I hate about some of the YA “issue” books I’ve read, that they get all preachy and unsubtle, rather than dealing honestly with the complexities of the experience.

  • Deja

    The first part last is my favorite book. I always cry when I read it idk y. But I mean I’m very sensitive when it comes to babys I cried on Juno lol. But I recommend everyone to read this book it is and excellant book I wish they would have made a part 2 or movie.

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