Countdown by Deborah Wiles

I’ve been hearing rumblings about Deborah Wiles’ Countdown for a few months now. I was intrigued so I ended up ordering myself a copy before my review copy arrived. It was well-worth it!

This is the story of Franny and her family during the brief, but terrifying, Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960’s. While I did not experience this firsthand, I could feel the fear and terror radiating from the pages as I read.  The world has been turned upside down by air-raid drills, bomb shelters, Russians, spies, and the Civil Rights Movement.  With all of this going on outside of her home, within her own four walls Fanny has to face her older sister’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, her uncle’s post-traumatic stress disorder, her “perfect” little brother, her best-friend-turned-enemy, and the cute new-old boy down the street.

Deborah Wiles has created a masterpiece.  The story is straight-up historical fiction based on her own memories of the time and I think tweens and teens alike will enjoy it.  Despite the setting of 1962, I think today’s tweens and teens will identify with the feelings of fear and terror that permeate the story.  But what really sets this book apart is the multi-genre approach Wiles uses.  She is calling it a documentary novel and there is no better description.

Interspersed between the chapters are primary sources, essays, song lyrics, posters, and much more from the time period. The references to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bob Dylan, Kennedy’s speeches, popular advertisements of the time, etc. appeal to an older audience.  I found myself turning the pages very slowly, inhaling the primary sources deeply and connecting them to the story of Franny and her family.  Every single item is chosen carefully and enhances the story while also presenting more information about the time period.  I’ve never seen a novel like this and can’t wait to read more like it from Deborah Wiles.  I’ve been a fan of hers for a while but this book has taken her to another stratosphere.

My only qualm so far has been the age range that I would use this with.  Franny is in elementary or middle school, depending on your view of the grade levels, which usually means students similar in age will be the most likely audience.  But the story appeals to a wider audience.  The primary sources take the story to a much higher level of thinking, and I could see this book being used in high school US History classes.  It’s a genius way of presenting information in a nonthreatening way.  The primary sources never take away from the story and only enhance the book.  In many ways, Wiles’ book reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that the protagonist is an elementary/middle school student but the audience will be much broader.

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