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!