"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 the whole country is living in fear."--Dust jacket flap.
As seen through the eyes of an endearing eleven year old girl, this book covers the last two weeks of October, 1962. The whole country is living with the fear of the BOMB, and the COMMUNISTS. Franny is afraid as well, but she also has other problems on her mind. Her best friend is pulling away from her, her sister is strangely absent, getting involved in university affairs, and her slightly crazy uncle seems to be ready to fly off his rocker. To top it off, an old neighbourhood boy moves back after being gone a year and he gives Franny, along with all the other Grade Five girls, a definite flutter.
Interspersed into the story are essays on current affairs, newspaper clippings, pictures and catch phrases of the day. Through these we see the evolvement of the Cuban Missile Crisis and catch a glimpse of the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and even the early introduction of military advisors to Viet Nam. I was the exact age of Franny during this time period, and felt an immediate attachment, Her priorities are mixed in with these very adult, very real situations. However, this isn’t a story of total gloom and doom, the author has a light, humorous touch and makes the whole Chapman family very real and believable. Told in a straightforward slice-of-life style, this engaging story breathes life into a time when the world tottered on the edge of nuclear war.
* Wonderfully realistic portrayal of a pre-teens anguish and fear during the cuban missile crisis. Her (Fanny) fear of the unknown and the changes going on with her family and friends is so beautifully written and realistic. The main character has to deal with all those horrible emotional growing pains while at the same time dealing with the fear that the "enemy" could just blow them up at any time
* All of the characters are interesting and unusual and the author describes them so well that you feel like you know them.
* Weaves fact and fiction so beautifully together. It is as no surprise that the story is based on the authors experiences during this tense moment in history.
* Fanny's imaginary letters to Khrushchev
* The relationship between the Fanny and her Uncle Otis who is obviously suffering from post traumatic stress disorder
* Fanny's teacher Mrs Rodriguez love for and stories of Cuba
* The tumultuous relationship between Fanny and her mom
* Beautiful scenes between Fanny and her sister, especially the one where she shows her how to dance
Not so Good Stuff:
* I liked all the mixed media within the book, but I would have preferred it all to either be at the beginning or the end of the story, as I found it distracted from the story when it was mixed in with it. That is just my opinion and lets face it I'm 40 and have 2 small children -- I already have far too many distractions!
What I Learned
* The Cuban Missile Crisis was very scary and it really makes you understand the development of the American psyche (This is not a dig -- I love Americans -- well -- a lot of them anyway, I don't have much love for George W Bush and Tom Cruise)
* Tons of facts about American history, that I really had no knowledge or understanding of
There are always scary things happening in the world. There are always wonderful things happening. And it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to approach the world . . . how you’re going to live in it, and what you’re going to do.”
Where have you been ? she asks in her Spanish inquisition voice.
How can I be scared of such a beautiful country full of people who are related to my teacher?
Who Should Read
* Americans who lived through this time - especially if they were young
* Perfect for discussions of history by Teachers and Librarians (OR Library Technicians) -- this is a definite must have for any school or public library
* Canadians so they can understand a little more about how scary this time period was for our neighbors in the US
Things aren’t better at school, where Franny feels overlooked, her closest friendship is disintegrating, and she’s entering the new territory of a romantic crush. And in the larger world? Nuclear annihilation -- when, into the wounds of WWII and Korea and the all-consuming threat of Communism and nuclear war, comes the flash of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I love this book's “documentary novel” concept, which weaves Franny’s story with a scrapbook-like, history-rich assortment of news headlines, photos, song lyrics and pop culture of the time. But it's my caution, too -- that the novel's story is solidly aimed at tweens but the documentary aspect seems aimed at adults, especially the baby-boomer generation. To help kids understand it all, this is a great book for (grand)parents / (grand)kids to read together. Plus, an adult reading companion will be helpful if the characters' 1960s cold-war preparations (fallout shelters; "duck and cover") invite comparison to today’s terrorism threat.
Countdown is the first volume in what Wiles has planned as a “sixties trilogy” (subsequent novels to be set in 1966 and 1968), and indeed she plants the stirrings of Vietnam and civil rights in this volume. I’m looking forward to them.
(Review based on a copy of the book provided by the publisher.)
The first of Deborah Wiles's Sixties Trilogy, Countdown takes a fresh look at a coming-of-age story in the 1960s. Franny Chapman is a typical 12 year old girl, who reads Nancy Drew, has fights with her best friend, worries about how her hair looks, and has a crush on the boy down the street. We've all been there, and hundreds of books have been there as well. What Countdown does differently is it takes us back to the 1960s with a series of actual photos, news clippings, song lyrics, quotes, and ads from the 1960s, dispersed throughout the novel like a scrapbook. The real photographs bring an element to the novel which makes the era all that much more tangible for the reader.
While Franny Chapman was worrying about attending her first boy-girl party, she also worried about the frightening world in which she lived - the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK, fall out shelters, and practicing how to duck and cover under her desk at school. Being twelve was hard. Being twelve in 1962 was exponentially harder.
Wiles writes with seemingly effortless ease about a difficult time in our nation's history, while never talking down to her audience, and powerfully tapping into those difficult tween years.
There is one scene early in the novel where Franny goes outside on the playground at recess, and isn't sure what to do with herself, who to play with, and is full of that insecure, unsure nervousness we all felt at that age.
"...without a book I don't want to be alone at recess - it looks bad and people think there's something wrong with you.
Already there's a kickball game going on. Do I want to play kickball? No. I'm a terrible kicker. Do I want to play jacks with Carol and Marcy? No. They don't like me all that much. Do I want to jump rope? I'm a great jump-roper, and there's my best friend, Margie, in the jump rope line, waiting her turn. She's deep in conversation with Gale Hoffman, a girl who lives in the neighborhood behind ours and whose mother lets her wear lipstick already and do whatever she wants."
Takes you back, doesn't it? But then, a few lines later...
"But before Gale can smile, before anyone can answer the sky cracks wide open with an earsplitting, shrieking wail.
It's the air-raid siren, screaming its horrible scream in the playground, high over our heads on a thousand-foot telephone pole -- and we are outside. Outside. No desk, no turtle, no cover.
We are all about to die."
As an adult reading a children's books, I obviously got more of a jolt from seeing some of the photos from Life magazine than some tweens might, but the novel was not all nuclear missiles and the civil rights movement. Franny learns a few dance moves from her older sister, she eats TV dinners and talks about a brand-new restaurant called McDonald's.
When I first picked up Countdown, I wasn't sure what age group for which it was intended, and the publisher recommends ages 9 to 12, but I think that this book would reach older kids as well as some younger. It was wonderful and I highly recommend this book to be read WITH your children to make for a truly memorable experience.
"Countdown" is the first in Deborah Wiles's "three companion novels about the 1960s." Spliced in the narrative by 11-year-old Franny are scrapbook-like pages with snippets of '60s songs, nuke-attack guides, President Kennedy's speeches, and a touching account of Fannie Lou Hamer.
The Cuban Missile Crisis serves as the looming backdrop for this story of a preteen life not so different from those of kids in this new century. Wiles weaves in the pop culture and politics of the era with only a couple of anachronistic phrases marring the authenticity. (They were more than compensated for by Franny's use of "heavens to Murgatroyd," an expression due for revival.)
Poor Franny is saddled with a great uncle still suffering from the trauma of the Great War, a dad who flies the president around and is rarely home, an older sister who is a civil rights activist, a brainy kid brother, and a mom who sends out thin streams of cigarette smoke and uncaring vibes. Oh, and the best frenemy and the cute boy across the street. Plus a dopey, heroic dog.
Both the story and the background sections pulled me in, but I wonder if today's kids of Franny's age would get past the fact that this is about ancient history, or the first historic photos section that precedes the start of Franny's story. So, 11-year-olds, what do you say?
The absolute best part of this book was the aforementioned historical perspective. The use of imagery and quotes interspersed between the book’s chapters is sure to educate young readers about this particular time period in a fun and entertaining way. For me, a strong selling point is the fact that it targets visual learners as well as those who tend to be a bit more traditional. I believe this approach provides to readers a better feeling for what it was really like to live in fear of an atomic bomb — the crouching under desks, the sitting in small tight shelters and all sort of other war related circumstances.
Don’t let all the pretty pictures fool you though, Countdown is an emotional story as well. Showcasing the delicate family dynamics between parents and children, a healthy dose of sibling rivalry, the strain of taking care of a senile older uncle and ultimately how all of this affects the friendships in a child’s life. I found Franny to be an endearing character to follow through the story. She was inquisitive and cunning yet still had a believable innocence and air of naiveté. At the age where friendships were tested by the impressions other children had of friends and family she felt profoundly the loss of her best friend as she distanced herself in favor of a more popular and less embarrassing crowd.
Not remotely preachy, Wiles teaches lessons on tolerance and acceptance. Using the threat of annihilation at the hands of an atomic bomb as a framework she explores fear as a catalyst for relationship building and deconstruction. Thankful that this is done softly and with little hand wringing she makes her points firmly without beating the reader over the head with the need for change and understanding.
Great for school aged children and history loving adults alike, Countdown is a strong story with excellent characters well worth picking up and enjoying.
If anybody had told me I was going to absolutely love a book that's main historical setting was the Cuban Missile Crisis I would have said "Sorry, I don't even read that kind of political book" then the next thing I'd say would be "BTW, what is the Cuban Missile Crisis?"
The book takes place over the last few weeks in October, 1962 and is somewhat autobiographical using the author's personal life and memories to tell the story of growing up in the sixties. Taking the author's place is Franny Chapman, an ordinary girl with a little brother who can do no wrong in her parents' eyes. It's the story of Franny's life; her best friend is starting to avoid her and becoming friends with a girl whose mother is divorced who Franny is not allowed to have anything to do with. Her uncle, great uncle really, lives with them as he raised her father, but he is slipping into dementia, calls everyone soldier and is embarrassing the whole family to the neighbourhood. Franny's father is in the Air Force and always going off on trips seeming never to be there when the worst family crises arise. Franny's older sister, who is in college, is up to something mysterious, something she has disagreed with their mother about, and then one night she just doesn't come back home.
The background is the height of the cold war. The children are inundated with the "duck and cover" routine should a nuclear bomb hit. They have practice drills and watch in class movies to make sure that instinctively they know what to do. The Bay of Pigs has ended and there is talk of the Russians attacking with a nuclear bomb. Then President Kennedy comes on the TV and explains the situation in Cuba involving the Russians and nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. The media quickly label this the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also spread throughout the book are the rumblings of the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. As the book ends, I believe the set up has been made that the background of the second book will be Civil Rights.
The story is just simply fantastic. I read the book in a day as I just couldn't put it down. The relationships between all the children were very real and the attitudes and lifestyle of the sixties shone through making the story very authentic. A very unique aspect of this book, which has been called a "documentary novel" is that in the middle of the ongoing story it will suddenly turn to a non-fiction essay on a person who has been mentioned. These are very interesting and flow right along with the story feeling perfectly natural in their placement. We learn of both Jack and Jackie Kennedy this way, along with Harry S. Truman, Pete Seeger, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer and others.
What makes this book truly amazing though is the combination of text with photographs and graphic media. Every so often, there is a graphic section which enhances the story telling through photographs, quotes, headlines, cartoons, posters, song lyrics and much more. These follow the storyline and political events are introduced through the graphic media before it becomes a part of the textual story which really enhances and makes clear the understanding of otherwise potentially difficult topics. But the photos also just immerse you in the culture and era with sports events, space accomplishments, popular singers and stark photos of reality.
I've never read anything quite like this before and think the combination of text and media has been put together brilliantly and with a compelling, well-written story this is a fantastic book. I am eagerly await the second book!
Fanny Chapman is invisible. Her teachers look right past her. Her best friend is prettier and her uncle is acting strange, but does anything really matter if nuclear bombs fall?
Wiles has created a book that I have not read before. I can promise readers that this book breaks new ground. I read both the manuscript of this book and the finished copy (and if I have one small complaint it is that I wish Scholastic had printed this book in a slightly larger size). On the manuscript cover we see that Scholastic has classified this book as 'Historical Fiction.' However, this book is more than that, although I am not quite sure what to call it--Historical Collage Fiction? My friend, Walter Mayes (AKA Walter the Giant Storyteller) mentioned that Wiles breaks the same kind of ground with Countdown that Brian Selznick accomplished with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This is more true than not.
The basic annotation of the book is that 11-year-old Franny is trying to survive the inevitable nuclear disaster that is heading toward her home near Andrews Air Force Base. We are in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. has just discovered bombs on Cuba pointing toward our country. Franny is practicing (and getting bloodied) during duck and cover drills. Meanwhile she is trying to convince her teacher that she exists (despite being invisible). She is trying to convince her family that she is more than a Cinderella servant. Her mother only seems to assign chores and, worse yet, blame. Her older sister treats her like a squirt and will not share the life-changing world she is entering in college. Her Uncle Otts is becoming crazier each day and embarrassing Franny, even while she tries to hold onto the vision of her Uncle as a WWI war hero. And now Franny is fighting with her best friend Margie over friends and boys and stolen letters. Catastrophe is in the air and duck and cover drills are not making Franny feel the least bit safer. Just what is her sister hiding from her under lock and key? Will Franny ever grow up? What is wrong with Uncle Otts? Will a nice boy like Chris Cavas ever choose a plain looking girl like her when her best friend Margie is prettier, more self-assured, and unburdened by a crazy family member?
The notable feature of COUNTDOWN is its inserted pictures of JFK; Khrushchev; Pete Seeger; Sandy Kofax; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan, images of the Civil Rights Movement, Cuba, Nancy Drew, and more. While many of the images have no direct bearing on the plot, they provide the emotional backdrop of the novel and place the story firmly in its historical period. In addition to providing thousands of teachers with a book that will become classroom reading, Wiles asks students to think about their own history in terms of music, media, literature, and popular culture. These added images and the inserted mini biographies of Trueman, Seeger, and JFK provide snapshots of what students like Franny would be experiencing on a daily basis during the Cuban Missile time frame. They give this book a soul that most historical fiction does not possess. They also, I believe, take that step of making historical fiction intersect with today's student and make the time period seem important in today's world. Historical fiction is not among the more popular reading material for teens and I think Wiles has figured out a way to change that perception! Well done!
The degree of difficulty in this book is what takes COUNTDOWN and elevates it to a new level. Wiles has created a new way of experiencing history in the pages of a novel. Her achievement makes this book a must buy for school libraries all across the country regardless of age. This is also a book that will resonate with folks like me who can still remember the duck and cover drills (which provided a moment of welcome respite from the drudgery of the school day). I am hoping that the Newbery committee finds a way to recognize the very unique and significant contribution Wiles has made with this book, despite literal rules that have some dissecting this book into separate parts not nearly so compelling as its magnificent total package. While this book fits in elementary school libraries, it is best suited to middle school libraries. I can even see high school teachers studying the form and style of this book and using it effectively with high school students studying either history or language arts.
Towards the end of the novel, Franny uncovers that people do truly care about her. Her family grows more and more supportive towards her and she sees that she truly does matter to people. Her friendship with Margie is restored and she makes several new friends along the way. A romantic intrest sparks up between Franny and the boy next door, Chris. Jo Ellen returns home and Franny and Jo Ellen restore the sisterly bond that was lost long ago, and Uncle Otts is finally at peace with the family.
Throughout the novel, one thing that was taken into consideration, was the character development. Deborah Wiles had excellent character development, especially with the main character, Franny Chapman. Franny wasn't portrayed the way a typical eleven year old girl is usually portrayed. Yes, she wore headbangs to school daily and dressed in dresses and cute things like that, but underneath all of that, the author shows us a little girl who is absolutely terrified. She has no idea whether or not she is going to wake up and live through the next day, because, in reality, Franny and the rest of America could have been bombed at any second. Franny is terrified, she is stressed, and is frantic. Deborah Wiles does an excellent job of portraying these emotions, without directly stating it.
Although the character development was fantastic, the novel was too much of an easy read. The novel easily could have taken me less than a week to finish, and the same goes to others that have read it. Half of the book was just images, thus why the novel was categorized as a documentary novel, but the images took up a lot of where Deborah Wiles could have put in more detail. Her transitioning from sequence to sequence was also rather quick and lacked detail, making the story confusing at points. If Deborah Wiles had added detail, instead of rushing through the novel, the novel would have been more enjoyable to readers such as myself.
The character development was spot-on, however, the lack of detail really killed the novel for me. I really wasn't impressed by the novel, due to it's simplicity. If the author had taken more time and put more detail into it, the novel would have been much more enjoyable. The only major problem with the novel was the lack of detail, which ruined the novel for me.
This documentary novel combines story and nonfiction in a unique way, presenting the reader with tons of archival photos, ads, songs, newspaper headlines, etc. in order to create the feel of and give background knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the events leadint up to it. While I felt like the story got a little lost in the shuffle, the book as a whole is truly a feat. I'll be looking forward to the next two installments.
I found the mix of history and coming-of-age story very original and enjoyable but I wonder if elementary school kids will like it as much as I did. My hestitation is that the interruption of the history bytes will take them out of the story and cause their interest to flag. I will pass this to my 11-yo daughter to see what she thinks. For an adult read though, this is great.
True confession: I am totally caught up in the 60's trend that is going on right now. I watch Mad Men, wear pencil skirts, and just bought a mid-century modern coffee table. So I was very excited to read this book and was well-rewarded. This book has a great mix of history and fiction. Kids will totally relate to Franny's social problems--who hasn't had a friend go off the deep end? At the same time, they'll find out about one of the scariest and tense times in United States history that they may not be very familiar with. The author mixes transcripts of actual newsfootage, presidential speeches, and commercials, as well as songs, photographs, and movie stills with her story to really bring the time period to life. However, there are also funny and touching moments to lightened the oppressive aura of dread. Franny's family seems totally realistic, especially to middle schoolers, who will recognize how a family members can be completely annoying one minute and completely lovable the next.
Well-paced and fascinating, students will both root for and relate to Franny. The historical backdrop is on display through various historical artifacts sprinkled throughout the book. Reluctant readers will enjoy the story, while advanced readers can examine the historical perspectives. This is an engaging book that I can highly recommend to anyone. I'm looking forward to the next installment.
Reading level: 5th--8th grade
Countdown brought so many vivid memories for me like bomb shelters (we had one in our basement)and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember my teacher's hands shaking when we heard the announcement over the PA. We rode home on the school bus with a lot of frightened friends.
Franny is only eleven but she had so much to deal with!
She is worried about Russia and wants Khrushchev to understand that we are human beings and we don't need to scare each other. She couldn't understand why her best friend dropped her for a snobbish and uncaring girl. Where is her sister? Things arent't matching up with her. She loves her Uncle Otts who lived with them. Why did he seem to be in another world? Why is her younger brother always reading and holding on tight to his favorite book, 'Our Friend, the Atom".
Frannie, survives all of the above and learns about herself and her family in a very uneasy age.
This book is richly illustrated and has many of the poignant lyrics from songs of the times running though the book.
I cared a lot about Frannie, her brother and her older sister. Her parents seemed distant but I think they were so wrapped up in the times that they couldn't see the anguish that their children were going through.
This is a very well written book and I recommend it to everyone who has lived through the sixties or wants to know more about them.
Appetizer: The first book in the Sixties Trilogy, Countdown is set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and when Americans were certain that at any minute the Russians would bomb the U.S. Franny is an eleven-year-old with her hands full. As the middle child, she often feels ignored by her parents and teachers. Her big sister, Jo Ellen is keeping secrets from her. Her Uncle Otts is having trouble remembering that he's not a soldier anymore and she's not certain that her best friend Margie wants to be her best friend anymore. Plus, her crush, Chris, has just moved back into the neighborhood.
Wiles refers to Countdown as a "documentary novel." That seems as fitting a term for it as any. Surrounding the chapters of Franny's story are posters, song lyrics and biographical sketches of major figures from that time period.
When I first picked up Countdown to read, I was a little nervous. It is a thick book, my friends. Did I have time for this? The energy? Then I opened it and was greeted by pages and pages of images, newspaper headlines and quotes. I was reminded of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 540-page long picturebook.
Also, as a random note: Here's a picture of a boy that looks a lot like Hugo. How fun is that? Brian Selznik, when will you immortalize me in a masterpiece?
Apparently the boy's name is Max and he wasn't cast for the Hugo movie. Oversight!
Internetz: Brain! What are you supposed to be doing?
ShelBrain: *sheepish* Reviewing Countdown.
Internetz: Don't you think you should be doing that then?
Countdown is more text heavy the Hugo Cabret of course. As a reader, I did find myself tempted to skip over some of the biographical sketches (I know I would have when I was eleven), but I remained strong.
About 100ish pages in, I had a child-like reaction to the book. (AKA juvenile!) My inner 10-year-old boy reared his wee pimple-free head. (I don't mean to imply I actually am part boy. Rather, I often react to books like a young male reader.) My inner ten-year-old rebelled, saying "Deborah Wiles! You're trying to trick me into learning! I don't like to be tricked! There are too many words! What happened to the pictures! I want more pictures! I like being able to skip through ten pages in under a minute! Bring the pictures back or I'll stop reading!!!!!!"
I stopped reading the book for over a week. I was frozen. Dead in the water. With sharks circling and me clinging to a piece of drift wood, weeping and praying for rescue.
I suspect that most readers don't have the problem I had. Most reviews of Countdown have been so sparly, glowy that you have to wear sunglasses just to read them. I think I wound up with skyscraper-high expectations, when I should have been expecting to be able to enjoy a nice two-story suburban home.
(I have no idea where that housing metaphor came from. I think all the talk of the housing crisis has finally invaded my brain synapses. Or other brain anatomy stuff. Oh, science.
Despite the fact that the book didn't meet my expectations, I was still surprised by the world Wiles created. I couldn't believe the lack of privacy Franny had throughout the story. There was also this scene where Franny mentions that some of the students actually brought her teacher apples. My response was, Really?! Really?! ...how come nobody give me gifts.
"I am eleven years old, and I am invisible.
I am sitting at my desk, in my classroom, on a perfect autumn afternoon--Friday, October 19, 1962. My desk is in the farthest row, next to the windows" (p. 16).
"It's the air-raid siren, screaming its horrible scream in the playground, high over our heads on a thousand-foot telephone pole--and we are outside. Outside. No desk, no turtle, no cover.
We are all about to die" (p. 21).
"What's worse: your best friend doesn't feel like your best friend anymore, or the whole neighborhood thinks your family is an embarrassment?
Or maybe it's worse that you wouldn't acknowledge your uncle, Franny.
Maybe I'll just stay here, hidden behind the bush, forever" (p. 45).
"Nobody asks about my hard day," I say. I apply Jo Ellen's red lipstick thickly to my thin lips. "Nobody even cares that I was stuck outside during the air-raid drill and everybody panicked and cried and bled to death. But no...that's not important in this family, because I'm not important. Daddy hardly said two words to me today, but he plays a whole ball game with Drew" (p. 84).
Tasty Rating: !!!