Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Countdown by Deborah Wiles (NY: Scholastic, 2010).

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement directly impact the life of this story's protagonist, 11-year-old Franny Chapman. At school there are regular air-raid drills even before the crisis and the fearful, nearly paranoid, atmosphere of the era permeates the novel. Wiles enlivens her narrative with documentary-like footage from primary sources that show the reader Franny's world as she is living it. Not just the duck-and-cover drills, but pivotal moments such as Kennedy's televised speech and Walter Cronkite's reporting are well integrated as well as cultural trends such as rock and folk music (Pete Seger, Bob Dylan, the Beatles). Franny's sister is directly involved in campus activities and the Civil Rights movement, so she's not home much, and Franny worries for her well being. Her dad is on high alert at the Air Force, and Franny frets that he'll be killed. Her uncle Otts, a WW II veteran, has a breakdown of some sort, triggered by current events dredging up memories of heavy losses during that war.

Franny is dealing with more mundane problems as well--her crush on the new boy, a squabble with her best friend, embarrassment and misunderstandings at school, and her middle child feelings of neglect as she's overlooked between her college-aged older sister and perfect angel younger brother.

Overall, this is an excellent historical novel that will find a large audience well beyond its juvenile target. Highly recommended for ages 10 & up.

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