Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wiles, Deborah. Countdown. Scholastic Press. 377 pages, plus author’s notes and background. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-10605-4 (2 stars out of 4)

Although I do not watch much television (who has time?), I am aware of and familiar with most popular shows just by listening to the radio and perusing a general smattering of popular monthly magazines. One show, AMC’s trendy Mad Men, has even created nostalgia for a long-gone and little-glamorized period, the early 1960s, the era of such happy times as the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination, and Freedom Ride murders. All of a sudden, it’s cool for men to wear suits and hats, smoke, and womanize again (as if it were ever cool to begin with), and women get to “enjoy” that second class status they so poorly deserved and worked so hard to eliminate over the last 50 years. Using primary sources such as song lyrics, biographies, and symbols/pictures from the era, Deborah Wiles has hopped on the early 1960s bandwagon with her latest effort, Countdown. Although her author notes indicate that she started this work as a picture book in 1996, the current early 1960s craze has certainly contributed to its release now. Frankly, as an adult idea, this type of book has promise, but as a book for upper elementary and middle schoolers, I fear it lacks relevance for today’s youth.
Franny Chapman lives in fear and insecurity most of the time. 1962 is a transitional year, and Franny seems to have trouble with change. Her best friend Margie appears to be friends now with Gale, daughter of the local (and off-limits) divorcee. Franny’s sister Jo Ellen, who frequently receives mysterious letters from someone named Ebenezer, is away at college and disappears for days at a time. Worst of all, Franny’s Uncle Otts, still scarred from the horrors of World War I, insists on building a fallout shelter right in the middle of their suburban Maryland yard. Suffering tremendous embarrassment, fear of reprisal, and concern for his health, Franny tries but fails to get Uncle Otts to stop: “There’s a crater forming in the front yard. Uncle Otts wipes his face with a handkerchief, loads up the wheelbarrow with chunks from our front yard, begins to roll the wheelbarrow toward the bushes, and then . . . the wheelbarrow topples onto its side. Uncle Otts staggers backward several steps, drops his shovel, and topples like a domino” (95). It is October 1962, and Franny’s world, along with everyone else’s, is being turned upside down and inside out because of the Cuban Missile Crisis; additionally, Franny’s dad is an Air Force major whose job brings world events right into the Chapmans’ living room. Franny must find a way to regain her best friend (or make a new one), save Uncle Otts from himself, discover Jo Ellen’s secrets, and avoid the Russians’ plan to conquer the world, all while finishing fifth grade without alienating her classmates and teachers. Whether deserved or not, Franny definitely feels the weight of her problems and the world’s issues firmly on her shoulders.
Countdown by Deborah Wiles is a cool idea, but not for the targeted age group. Middlers of this generation do not know about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and they generally do not learn that material in my district until 8th grade. The novel contains YA biographies that look like they are fresh from our SRA readers of the 1960s, but they do not stop in 1962, so the impact of their inclusion is diminished; it would have made more sense to make the biographies appear as if they appeared in Franny’s Social Studies or Language Arts textbook. Now, they simply appear out of context. My students (and sometimes, even their parents) have no context for the grace of Jackie O, the protest of Pete Seeger, or the commitment of the SNCC and the Freedom Riders, so their stories may be lost to today’s students. Also, coincidentally, there is no mention of what the political Right was up to in the early 1960s; where is Goldwater beside Kennedy? The pictures and song lyrics are provocative, but only to people who understand their context. I admire the creation of a new genre, and this “non-fiction novel” is an admirable effort, but I fear its subtleties will be lost on its target demographic. Choosing Jo Ellen the college student as the protagonist might have drawn in a more mature and knowledgeable audience that could better appreciate the book’s message. I am concerned that students will think Countdown by Deborah Wiles is too much like a history textbook and that, like Bert the Turtle, they will duck and cover when they check it out on the shelves.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home