June 2, 2010

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Title: Countdown
Author: Deborah Wiles
Publisher: Scholastic Press

From Goodreads
It's 1962, and it seems everyone is living in fear. Twelve-year-old Franny Chapman lives with her family in Washington, DC, during the days surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amidst the pervasive threat of nuclear war, Franny must face the tension between herself and her younger brother, figure out where she fits in with her family, and look beyond outward appearances. For Franny, as for all Americans, it's going to be a formative year.

My Review
As a teacher I'm always on the lookout for good historical fiction.  It can be hard to get it right - balancing a interesting story with good historical knowledge.  When I saw the concept behind Countdown - intermixing real historical documents, songs and information of important people of the time within the story - I was immediately interested.  I thought it might be a great way to tell a story but also tell history.

First let's look a the story in Countdown.  The main character is Franny a 12 year old girl.  I found Franny very charming and realistic.  She's caught between an older sister that is growing up and starting to become independent and a little brother she sees as pefect.  I think many kids would be able to relate to her frustrations about being the middle child.  She feels singled out and made to do "everything" around the house while she siblings do nothing - what child hasn't felt that way?! To top if off, her Uncle Otts lives with them.  He seems to be suffereing from some sort of post tramatic stress that comes out in ways that often embarrass Franny.  Right at the start of the story he stops her and all the neighborhood kids on their way home from school.  He yells at them as if they are soldiers.  Franny is so embarrassed she hides behind a bush until everyone leaves.  At age 12 who could blame her - she has no clue how to handle the situation any other way.  To top all that - she is fighting with best friend who is now almost ignoring her, and when she'd not ignoring Franny she seems to be making fun of her. With all this I really felt for her and developed a soft spot for her.

As the story progresses we watch Franny grow and learn to look beyond her own life. She comes to realize that not everything is the way she believes it to be. This all happens within the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  After Franny and her family listen to President Kennedy's speech telling them about Russian missiles in Cuba everything in Franny's life changes.  Her brother becomes withdrawn, her dad, who is in the military, is put on alert, her sisters seemingly disappears and Franny truly wonders if she'll ever grown old. She's left to try to work it all out while watching others around her do the same. Through several difficult situations Franny starts to learn that "not being afraid is to understand what scares you" (pg 346).  By the end she is beginning to understand what scared her and how to not let it run her life.  It was a beautiful transition to see and one that I found very realistic and plausable.

Now for the real footage scattered throughout the book. Between some chapters there were pictures of political figures of the time, song lyrics, speeches, small biographies etc- I liked it because I understood it.  But I worry that it could be difficult for middle school readers.  They may not know as much about the Cuban Missile Crisis, so the extra information may be confusing.  If they don't have some understanding of what was happening between the US and Russia and the real fear of a nuclear attack, they may not get all the references to "tuck and cover" or the song lyrics. They also may not understand why information about Harry S Truman and Pete Seeger were included.  They may not understand the hysteria of fallout shelters and the hints about the Civil Rights Movement. Do I think these are all things they should learn about - 100% yes! But I'm worried they aren't explained well enough in the story to help a kid understand.  It isn't until Kennedy's speech half way through the book that the fear of this time was really shown.  If I were to recommend this book to a student - I would help them understand why the extra stuff is included or they might skip over it thinking it's not important. That would make them lose a huge chunk of what this book is trying to accomplish. Even with these concerns I do think that if all a student learns is what Franny learns - then the time reading the book was well spent!

I can completely see this book used in a classroom in conjunction to the teaching of American history! I think it would be an amazing way to show how people during this time were affected.  Franny's family would be a realistic example that students would be able to relate it.  I will be suggesting the book to the history teachers in my building! Also, I understand this is the first book in a trilogy.  I'm very curious to see what the others are about.

Final thought: I loved Franny, and through her story I understand this time in history better.

Best stick-with-you image: Uncle Otis yelling at the kids like they were soldiers.  I wanted to cringe with Franny.

Best for ages: 11+ but I'd help them a bit with an understanding of what the Cuban Missile Crisis was.

Don't forget to enter my giveaway for a copy of the book and a tote bag.  Go HERE to enter!


  1. Great review. This seems like an amazing book, and Franny seems like a great, young character. I'd think young readers who read this could also think about what's scaring them in today's world as well. Things that are beyond our control, but changes us nonetheless. Just something to think about.

    Once again, great review. I'm adding this to my TBR list. =)

  2. Jill-you echo my thougths exactly! While I loved the extra documentary stuff, they are presented without context and I kept wondering if young readers would really understand it or if they would think people in the 60's were just silly and dumb for being so scared (especially knowing that there was no attack). I didn't think the context for everyone being afraid was really explored until about halfway through the book. I would love to see this used in a classroom, because then they could discuss the book and really understand the book as a whole. The story itself is great and I loved it!

  3. Great review! Looks like a great book. I'm in Canada so I'll leave the contest for someone else to win!

  4. That was a scary week! Right after JFK announced the Cuban blockade, we had a carpool ride to school. Saundra said "we might not be alive tomorrow!" So I very well remember the events of that week, the newspaper headlines, and us waiting for USSR to blink.
    Will look for this book.