Some reviewers criticized Heaven for its unrealistic portrayal of small town life as idyllic and for its lack of conflict among characters—all of whom are consistently (and incredibly) loving, kind, and supportive. The First Part Last garnered similar criticism for its rose-colored portrayal of a conscientious, loving, competent, and caring sixteen-year-old single father, still going to school and tirelessly struggling to care for his baby daughter on his own, never wavering in love and devotion. Both books feature predictable, rather trite happy endings that please readers more than they please literary analysts.
While the characters and plot fail to ring true for some critics, Johnson is nearly always praised for the controlled emotional impact of her plain, spare writing. Her well-chosen, concrete details tap into her readers’ emotions. In one scene of The First Part Last, for example, Bobby paces the floors of his father’s apartment at five thirty in the morning with a wide-awake Feather in his arms. The sounds of the neighborhood are unfamiliar to him at such an hour, and he grabs the first thing he can find—his old Mets sweatshirt—to warm his shivering baby.
Johnson’s plots may be trite, but her execution saves her narratives from saccharine romanticism. The use of the present tense in both books draws readers into the minds and hearts of the main characters. In The First Part Last, alternating “Then” and “Now” chapters integrate Bobby’s struggles in the present with the backstory of the pregnancy and the loss of Nia. Johnson is a poet, and her images are often fresh and symbolic. In Heaven, for example, sheer curtains blow with a warm breeze across Marley’s face as she naps peacefully. In minutes, the thin, translucent veil they represent will be ripped away, and the serenity of Marley’s comfortable family life will be shattered, when the truth about her parentage is disclosed. Critics found more to love than to hate in these books, both of which won numerous honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award.