I held this book up to the noses of the children’s bookgroup I run. “Does anyone know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was?” I asked. My point blank question was met with pointedly blank stares. I tried a little word association on them. “Duck and cover? Bunkers? Castro? Bay of Pigs?” Nope. It’s funny, but when you think of what parts of American history sort of get bypassed in school, the Cuban Missile Crisis is definitely one of them. To be fair, children’s literature has kind of let them down. The Crisis will sometimes get a passing glance in most historical fiction as a kind of side note. It took a writer like Deborah Wiles to drag it front and center for one and all to see. Countdown doesn’t just show you 1962. It plunges you headlong into that year, bombarding you with the songs, styles, images, and bold angry statements. Reading Countdown is like taking an immersion course in early 60s history with an expert who knows her stuff.
It starts out as just one small problem, and then billows out from there. It’s 1962 and twelve-year-old Franny Chapman is frustrated to find that her teacher will not call on her to read aloud in class. It’s infuriating! Still, that little problem feels like small potatoes after the bomb drill in school that day. And that problem pales in the face of her Uncle Otts and his mental breakdown at home. Add in her best friend’s strange and mean behavior, her sister’s secret activities, and the fact that the whole country might be going to war with the Russians soon over some missiles in Cuba . . . well it’s hard enough to be twelve as it is. Franny’s got a lot on her mind these days. The country? It feels the same way. Documentary media and biographies spot the text, putting the story in context.
The thing I like about Deborah Wiles is how good she is at putting you in a character’s shoes. You may not agree with everything Franny thinks, says, and does but you empathize with her. You understand her. And when injustice is wrought against Franny you feel it in your gut. Whether it’s her teacher skipping her in class when everyone’s reading (a plot point that is elegantly tied up by the end) or her best friend stealing something that isn’t hers, you feel for Franny. Heck, you’d push that no good, snide Margie in the girl’s bathroom TOO if you had a chance. Rotten little thief. You see? I’m still in the book!
It’s remarkable to think that this title started life as a picture book in 1996 (not that we aren’t shockingly lacking in picture books about the Cuban Missile Crisis too). The book is so rich that imagining a pared down version of it feel faintly sacrilegious. That’s partly because Wiles has a way with language. She knows how to put unspeakable emotions into words. You know when a toddler stumbles and then tries to decide if they’re going to cry or not? Wiles makes it clear that the tween version of that consists of insults kids give to one another in the form of advice. As Franny says at one point, “I don’t answer Margie. I try to decide if she has hurt my feelings.” Her descriptions are also top of the charts as well. “Our kitchen is pink. Pink refrigerator, pink stove, pink walls, pink sink. The room looks like it’s been hosed down with Pepto-Bismol.” And then there are the sentences that will be perfect for bookgroups discussing this title across the country. "Over four million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians perished. The middle initial S in Harry S Truman’s name stood for nothing." You could probably read the book several times before you realized that most of it was written in the present tense too.
And accurate to the times? Brother, I don’t know the last time I saw a mom smoke in a book where that looked normal. It was normal in the early 60s after all. Details of the time period don’t boldly announce themselves but just sit there, giving the book the right atmosphere. After a while, I found that there was never a moment when I doubted Wiles’s research. She’s meticulous. The bibliography and websites are superb. Exactly the kind of thing you would want in a book like this. You grow to trust Wiles so much that when a clap of thunder shocks Franny’s family on the night President Kennedy talks to America about the crises you honestly believe that the author researched the weather reports of Washington D.C. for that exact date and time.
The media in this book poses a bit of a conundrum, though. Don’t get me wrong. It’s brilliant. The periodic breaks in the book are filled with photographs and ephemera. Some kids will skip these entirely to get to the plot and some kids will pore over the selections, disregarding the story. Most, though, will read both and gain a fuller knowledge of Franny’s world as a result. It’s entrancing, particularly when you notice that the text is also broken up with some biographies of famous figures at the time. These biographies sound as if Franny has written them for a report, but they’re fun and urbane with meaningful asides printed in bold type. You don’t get the sense that you’re reading boring old facts with these portions. The book is beautifully broken up without ever losing momentum too. At the start it goes media, text, bio, text, media, etc. and you’re right there along with it.
Yet the media isn’t without some problems. As one librarian pointed out to me, periodically images are accompanied by unidentified song lyrics throughout the text. In the first section, for example, you can read “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, printed on top of a photo of an exploded bomb and later “Hold Your Head Up High” above an image of Bert the Turtle right before he ducks and covers. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” accompanies both the moon (with Kennedy’s statement that “we choose to go” there) and some unrelated quotes. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” repeats under a photograph of children hiding under their desks. Now as an adult reading this book, I understand that these quotes are from Carousel and are often meant to be ironic. Later the song is “Que Sera Sera” and the lines “the future’s not ours to see” and “What will be will be” appear. But there is nothing to indicate that these are songs at all. If you were to inspect the backmatter you’d notice that there’s a section crediting “Lyrics” but how many children will put two and two together? A lot of kids will read these lyrics straight through, without irony, which changes the entire meaning of the words. The quotes make perfect sense within the context of their songs. Without that context, child readers are left behind. Interestingly, these quotes are also from some pretty unhip songs (though “The Locomotion” does make an appearance). It’s hard to say how they relate to Franny. Certainly her class has been singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at school, but how do the other songs apply to her? Strange that the songs she actually mentions in the story (like “Runaway”) are never quoted. You’d expect a little more crossover.
The book is the first of a trilogy, I believe. This is good news for all of us. I, for one, want to keep going wherever Franny may lead me. Of course, there is the question of whether or not the book stands on its own. For the most part all the loose ends are tied up at the finish. There is the question of Franny’s older sister to answer, though. You never really learn what it is that she’s up to (my husband was hoping that The Highlander School would be mentioned, since it would tie everything up so beautifully). Much like the song lyrics in the mixed media portions, adults will probably have a good idea, but kids for the most part will be left baffled. However, I think the subsequent novels in this series will answer that question effectively. So I don’t fret over not knowing quite yet.
There are plenty of books out there where kids find their relatives obsessed with digging some fallout shelters. House of the Red Fish. Gemini Summer. The Wonder Kid. The Loud Silence of Francine Green. Francine Green, for the record, is probably the book this title reminded me of the most, though it was more concerned with the Red Scare than the Missile Crisis. And few of these books really nail the paranoia of the time period. Kids today have plenty to fear, if they want to. They can be scared of terrorist attacks or epidemics or war even. When I was a kid in the 80s I spent my own nights worrying about what my President might do with the bomb. Franny may be a child of the 60s but she’s dealing with issues that any generation can relate to and understand. So while it may be the most early-1960s children’s novel I’ve ever read, I’m going to stamp the word “timeless” all over this puppy. Memorable and interesting, all at once.
On shelves May 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher.
Notes on the Cover: Clever ducks. That’s a boy/girl jacket if I ever saw one. You know. A cover meant to appeal to both boys and girls equally so that when they’re assigned it they don’t automatically cringe. Ah, yellow. You really are the world’s most perfect non-gender specific hue.
Misc: Have you ever seen the Deborah Wiles blog before? It is, in a word, awesome. I love the 1962 iTunes song selection on the side. Very clever touch, that. I also like her post on the three starred reviews the book received all at once.