proseandkahn (proseandkahn) wrote,

(96) Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Twelve days in October, 1962 told from the POV of an eleven-year-old Air Force Brat. The first thing that Franny Chapman wants the reader to know is that she feels invisible. The second thing is that she's really good at reading aloud and her teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez has skipped her twice during social studies that week and she does not want it to happen again. It does. But her ire over the insult pales in comparison to the panic she feels during a truly frightening air raid drill that occurrs while the fifth grade is out on the playground at recess. There were no desks to hide under that would protect during a nuclear attack. Worse yet, the grown-ups are not even sure what to do!

Franny knows that, should the Russian's launch their nukes, her town would be a target. It's just miles from the nation's capitol and home to an Air Force Base. She and her family are toast. Her dad's a commander in the Air Force, her mom is a force of nature, her older sister is a college student involved in all sorts of secret meetings, her little brother is going to be an astronaut. Oh, and her Uncle Otts is still fighting World War I in his head. She's mortally embarrassed by Uncle Otts but loves him fiercely at the same time. She's intensely curious about the mysterious letters that her sister is receiving - curious enough to break into the "hope chest" where the letters are locked. She's also mildly worried about the way her best friend, Margie is treating her.

Franny is a study in contrasts. She's a good student who's unafraid to let the world know; but simultaneously super self-conscious and worried about the opinion of her peers. She hides in the bushes during one of Uncle Ott's eccentric outbursts rather than face the reaction of the neighbors. She's also a person who breaks rules as quickly as she'll follow them. That's probably a good thing - a sign of a critical thinker. Even though she has absorbed the lessons of Bert the Turtle and has learned to "duck and cover," she's constantly spotting flaws in the Civil Defense plans.

I was younger than Franny at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and have no memory of it. I don't recall practicing for air raids.  I do remember the day that President Kennedy was assassinated a year later. I don't recall anything being said in school, but I remember returning home to find my mom sobbing in front of the television. I had no idea what to do and it totally freaked me out. I think I backed out of the living room and hid.
A stray thought kept crossing my mind as I read. I should say question, really. (Actually, I should delete the two previous sentences and this one and start over.) I wondered what the story of an eleven-year-old might be like set in the week following the September 11 attacks. Deborah Wiles did such a great job of evoking the juxtaposition of oblivion, egocentricity and trust that any kid might feel during a time of great stress. 

The documentary format is pure genius. How does one describe the sixties to children? I adored Gary D. Schmidt's book, The Wednesday Wars, but I wondered how accessible it would be to twelve-year-old readers today. I felt like it should have been checked out along with an age-appropriate documentary. Viola, Deborah Wiles does just that in one beautifully designed book. The iconic photographs, ads, music lyrics lend context to Franny's story if the reader is curious and can be skipped, if not.

The book began its journey as a picture book (according to the author's acknowledgment) before morphing into Countdown, which is now book one of a planned trilogy, called, The Sixties Trilogy. I can't wait to see what's on tap. Will it still center around the Chapman family? JoEllen is involved with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Will one book focus on the raising of her consciousness? Drew is eight or nine and wants to become an astronaut. Will one of the books focus on the Vietnam War and the protests?

One teeny, tiny thing didn't quite work for me. There were four or so "reports." They were biographies that felt like they could have been written by Franny, but two discussed events about the subjects that happened after 1962. This distracted me. It momentarily pulled me out of the story to puzzle over. My preference would be to think that I'm reading Franny's report. (This is so minor though.)

Finally, the cover just tickles me. I can't wait to see how my students react to it. I am almost loathe to cover it for my library. There's a generic 45 - Side A on it and it is grooved! I can't help but touch it every time I hold the book. I ran my fingers over it just before I typed the previous sentence. So cool.

Disclosure: I received this copy from the author, who offered a certain number through a listserv posting. It will become part of my school's library collection.
Tags: 1960s, 2010 favorite, cuban missile crisis, documentary, historical fiction
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded