So far, Countdown is my favorite book of 2011. I know it's only been 2011 for a couple of weeks, but I LOVE this book! Wiles describes the book as a "documentary novel," and I think that is a perfect description. The story is set in 1962, and the text is interspersed with images, speeches, soundbites, and songs from the period leaving the reader immersed in the time period. What a fabulous idea! I would love to read this book with my students.
Franny Chapman is an eleven year old with problems. The book begins with an unplanned air raid drill that leaves Franny and her friends traumatized and confused. As if that weren't enough, her older sister, Jo Ellen, is becoming more distant from the family with her new college friends and mysterious letters. Her younger brother Drew is a perfect future astronaut who loves science and who is always brave and honest. Uncle Otts is suffering flashbacks from his war experiences in the middle of the street in front of everyone. Her father is a pilot in the air force, and is frequently away from home. Her mother is irritable and leaves Franny feeling overworked and underappreciated. Her best friend, Margie, has suddenly decided she doesn't liek Franny anymore, and to top it all off, Mrs. Rodriguez, her teacher, has skipped over Franny four times in social studies. As Franny would say, "Heavens to Murgatroyd!"
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Countdown is terrifying, hilarious, touching, and revelatory. Franny's fight with her friend, Margie, is mirrored in the United States' relationship with Russia, and perception vs. reality is a theme thoughout the novel. For the majority of the book, the historical context is between chapters, but by the end, song lyrics and words of historical figures are interspersed with the action creating depth and underscoring the connection between the girls' relationship and international relations. Wiles leaves the reader with the idea that if we could all just see each other as people and show a little love for humanity, "what a wonderful world it would be." (Grades 5-8)