Monday, May 31, 2010



Written by: Deborah Wiles
Recommended Ages: 10 and up

Countdown is a middle grade book that, I predict, will be garnering a lot of attention in the coming year. In it, we are introduced to Franny Chapman, an eleven-year-old who is dealing with a lot of the typical ups and downs of fifth grade, while the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is brewing in the background.

The book begins in October, and Franny is in her class wondering if her teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, is going to call on her to read aloud, or skip over her again. She's beginning to think that Mrs. Rodriguez doesn't like her. Sure enough, she's skipped. As she heads out to recess she's worried about that, as well as her friendship with her best friend Margie which seems to be on the fritz. Five minutes into recess the air raid siren goes off and chaos erupts, as the children scramble to get into position. For they've all been trained on what to do--DUCK AND COVER! As Franny squats against the fence we get a sense of what it must have been like in 1962:

"I shove my hair out of my face, lick my lips, and search the horizon for...something. Russian airplanes dropping bombs? My dad is a pilot and he would never drop bombs on a school. I hope the Russian pilots are like daddy."

They soon find out that it was just a drill, and some degree of normalcy resumes, although the residual effects are felt. The Cuban Missile Crisis and Cold War play a significant role in the story, and there are interesting archival photographs, quotes and music sprinkled throughout the book. It's a history lesson for a period that is not typically covered in children's literature, and Deborah Wiles has done her research. You really get a sense of what happened in October 1962, and what it did to kids' psyches with all the talk about nuclear bombs and shelters.

"No matter where we live,
in the city or the country,
we must be ready all the
time for the atomic bomb.
Duck and Cover!
That's the first thing to do.
Duck and Cover!
The next important thing
to do after that is to stay
covered until the danger
is over."

Lest you think that it's all heavy subject matter, never fear, for there are some wonderful kid moments going on which will keep the more reluctant readers engaged. There's a friendship going sour, a first boy-girl Halloween party, a first crush, an older sister with secrets, and an uncle who keeps doing rather embarrassing things. Franny handles all of this with a lot of angst, anxiety and spunk. She's a very likeable character precisely because she DOES doubt herself and wonders where she fits in, in the overall scheme of things. She fumbles along like most of us fumble along, and we love her for that. Plus, there's a rather dramatic ending and Franny more than rises to the occasion and proves herself a hero.

I think Countdown would be a terrific book for a fifth or sixth grade class to read aloud, or for parents to read with their kids. There are so many great topics for discussion. I personally loved the tidbits that were sprinkled throughout the book that reminded me of my own childhood. There is the family gathering every Sunday night to watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on their black and white TV. There are the kids eating Swanson's TV dinners when their parents go out on a Saturday night. There's the novelty of the new restaurant called McDonalds, where there are no waiters or waitresses. There are penny loafers and 45 records. I understand that Countdown is the first book of a trilogy, and I can't wait to see where Deborah Wiles goes with the next one.

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