Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review of Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Wiles, Deborah. Countdown. Scholastic Press, 2010.

It's 1962 and Franny is 11 years old, a truly awkward age. It's the age when girls begin to try and figure out the teenager they are on the cusp of becoming, and yet they're still very much kids in so many ways. Franny is still attached to her childish anklets, headbands, and Nancy Drew mysteries, even as her best friend Margie becomes ever more dismissive and distant.

Things aren't so great at home, either. Franny's little brother Drew is practically perfect, while her older sister Jo Ellen, a college student, is gorgeous, smart - and engaged in mysterious activities about which she won't tell Franny. Her dad is often away at work, her mom can be cranky, and her uncle doesn't seem to realize that WWII is long over.

And don't forget, it's 1962. Drop and cover drills take on new seriousness with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. With a nuclear war threatening to break out any moment, it's no wonder Franny is stressed out. The whole community is stressed out!

In fact, the whole nation was stressed out, as Wiles' "documentary novel" demonstrates. Using a combination of vintage images, quotes from songs, poems, newspaper articles, and other sources, and essays on subjects like JFK and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer, Wiles presents 1962 as a turbulent time. The United States was heaving with strong issues - racial injustice, the "communist threat," the missile crisis, the civil rights movement, the cold war, women's rights - and strong emotions - fear and hope chief among them.

Franny, though she may not even realize it, is touched by all of these issues, as canny readers will understand. Although Franny is understandably perturbed by the terrifying missile crisis, her best friend's betrayal and her crush on a neighbor consume most of her thoughts - like most kids, the most intense parts of her life take place within the narrow confines of her home and her neighborhood. And yet the events of 1962 encroach on her life in all kinds of ways, from her sister's involvement with organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to her teacher's marriage to a Cuban-American.

Franny is a geeky girl and proud of it. She wields a large and impressive vocabulary, which may account, or at least forgive, the fact that Franny's first-person narration doesn't sound childish at all, though the dialogue is age-appropriate. I think kids will like Franny, but they may become impatient (as Margie does) with her obsession with finding out Jo Ellen's secrets or her embarrassment over Uncle Ott.

Will kids accept the documentary portions of this novel as an enriching dimension of the story? Will they even understand the references? I'm not sure that they will. Though I found them interesting and sometimes incredibly poignant, I'm guessing most kids won't understand the context for most of these images and quotes. Not that it matters all that much - Franny's story can be read without paying a bit of attention to the nonfiction stuff. And perhaps the images and quotes will be sufficiently exotic, enigmatic, and even sinister to evoke a mood of the times without total understanding being necessary.

Perhaps the best way for kids to get the maximum enjoyment and appreciation from this book is to read it during or after a unit on this time in American history. (Do 5th-grade teachers even get to this decade? I seem to remember that my teachers never got very far into the 20th century before the school year ran out.) It's too bad in a way that Franny isn't portrayed as older - maybe 14. I think slightly older teens would appreciate some of the societal issues in this book, but won't be as interested in 11-year-old Franny's story.

I hope librarians give this to teachers and parents as well as to kids. Luckily, it's an attractive package that will appeal to all ages - the 45 rpm record on the cover has a rubbery ridge to it, and the end papers are also ridged, or in fact almost corrugated. My 19-year-old started flipping through the book solely because she liked the look of its stylish gold and black cover.

This is the first of a planned three-part series on the 1960's. Recommended for ages 11 to 13.

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