Thursday, August 11, 2011


I was quite nostalgic while reading Countdown.  Not because I was around for the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wasn't even a thought in the heads of my little third grade parents when that was going down.  No, I connected with Franny, the main character, because she is an Air Force kid.  And as military culture changes at a rate that is slower than slow, the experience of a 5th grade USAF brat in 1962 is not altogether different from that of one in 1988.  I was unsurprised to discover in the acknowledgments that author, Deborah Wiles, was herself an Air Force kid.
Synopsis (from Author's Website):
Franny Chapman just wants some peace. But that’s hard to get when her best friend is feuding with her, her sister has disappeared, and her uncle is fighting an old war in his head. Her saintly younger brother is no help, and the cute boy across the street only complicates things. Worst of all, everyone is walking around just waiting for a bomb to fall.  It’s 1962, and it seems that the whole country is living in fear. When President Kennedy goes on television to say that Russia is sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, it only gets worse. Franny doesn’t know how to deal with what’s going on in the world — no more than she knows how to deal with what’s going on with her family and friends. But somehow she’s got to make it through.

This is a story of a typical little girl.  Franny is a middle child struggling to be visible in a family with an older sister in college and a perfect "saintly" little brother.  She is struggling with growing into adolescence, having problems with her best friend, liking the boy next door, and wondering whether or not she will be able to attend her first boy/girl party.  She is snooping into her sister's things to find out the secrets she won't share.  These things make her accessible to contemporary kids and through her those kids will get a story that takes them to another time in history.  A time when air raid sirens could interrupt recess with the panic of a nuclear attack.  When people were building bomb shelters and storing food and bottled water.  Wiles does a fantastic job at showing the building terror in the children, particularly Franny and her younger brother, Drew.  The story is told by Franny herself and the writing is highly emotive.  My only quibble with the story is the end.  It was a little too dramatic and cliche' for my tastes.  The rest of the book was just so good in comparison that the end really didn't seem to fit.  Then there is the side story of Franny's sister's mysterious activities.  This is never resolved.  Now as an adult reader I know exactly what she is doing.  I'm not so sure a sixth grader would.  They might be left feeling robbed at not having that resolved at the end.

I love that this is a book written about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  (Thank you Deborah Wiles for writing a 20th century historical fiction novel for middle grades not set during the Great Depression.)  I also love the inventive format of the book, which is done documentary style.  In between chapters there are pictures of historical footage from the time period with quotes and song lyrics.  There are also a few essays.  This really gives the reader a feel for the setting and history.  I do wonder how much of it a child in the target age range would actually read and digest, particularly when it comes to reading the few essays that are scattered in it.  I minored in history in college and, I have to say, these essays bothered me a bit.  They are not sourced (the author does include a bibliography at the end but does not indicate which ones were used for what) and they are written in a style that is meant to sway the reader to think a certain way about the subject, with interjections here and there.  There were several mentions of the conflict in Vietnam and President Kennedy sending troops there as part of this documentary part too, and I couldn't help wondering why, as that is not what this book is about.  Sure it covers the same time period, but Vietnam is not mentioned in the actual narrative at all.  I can see 5tth or 6th graders seeing a reference to troops in Vietnam and assuming that it is a city in, or an island near, Cuba.  (I taught 5th grade, they really were that bad about Geography by the time they got to me.  Clueless, pretty much sums it up.)  It did make me wonder if this is a book kids would gravitate to on their own, or if it is one of those that teacher will foist on them.  I have a feeling it's the latter.

My favorite aspect of the book was, by far, the depiction of life in the USAF.  Sunday eating at the Club, dress uniforms, Sunday school at the Base Chapel, food coming from the Commissary, standing up for the National Anthem every time you see a movie (I, like Franny, was taken aback the first time I went to a civilian theater and didn't do this), the puffed up feeling you get when your sitting in the back seat and your car is saluted as it drives through the gate, all of it was perfectly conveyed.  This quote sums up my feelings perfectly:  "Just being on base makes me feel better.  There's something solid and safe about it, where everything is controlled and neat, everything is known, the rules make sense, and my whole family belongs.  Every bush is clipped just so, not a blade of grass is too high, and on every sidewalk there is a man or woman in uniform, walking to wherever he or she is going.  Every few minutes a jet flies overhead.  Sometimes lots of jets.  Everything has a purpose." I can not tell you how much I miss the sound of fighter jets.  They are the sound of home to me and I look forward to hearing them when I visit my parents. 

My children will definitely be reading this when we study this time period in 6th grade.  (See, there I will be, foisting.)  It is actually the first book in a trilogy, so there are two more to come.  I"m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

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