Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Countdown, by Deborah Wiles - engrossing historical fiction (ages 10 - 14)

Imagine being eleven years old and worrying that the world is going to end. In the early 1960s, school children throughout the US practiced Duck and Cover drills and worried about nuclear war. In Countdown, Deborah Wiles brings readers back to 1962, creating a documentary novel that combines a wonderful coming of age story with documentary footage that sets the scene politically and socially. It's a fascinating blend, one that will grab both tweens and their parents.
by Deborah Wiles
NY: Scholastic, 2010
ages 10 - 14
available on Amazon and at your local library
Franny's world is changing around her, and she's not sure that any of it will be okay. After pulling us into Franny's world with a striking picture of a nuclear bomb explosion and a grave warning from Nikita Khrushchev, and a public information poster teaching kids how to duck and cover, Deborah Wiles takes us into Franny's small world. Franny goes from frustrated that her teacher won’t call on her in class to horrified when the air raid siren starts blaring. It’s the summer of 1962 and America is about to enter what will eventually be called the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As the classic tween, Franny is straddling her childhood world and an awareness of the larger world around her. She is still attached to her headbands and Nancy Drew mysteries, but she's noticing that her best friend Margie is becoming more distant as she starts hanging out with the popular crowd and thinking about boys. Franny's having trouble at home, as well. Her little brother Drew is practically perfect, while her older sister Jo Ellen, a college student, is good-looking, smart, and always away with her college friends.

As Dana Reinhardt wrote in her post on SLJ's Battle of the Books,
"Deborah Wiles beautifully juxtaposes small private anxieties against larger communal ones. In a single day the heroine, Franny Chapman, fights with her best friend, throws up in the principal’s office and learns that an atomic bomb might see to it that she not live to morning– and it’s unclear which is the most devastating event. This, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a child."
Countdown is a unique novel - I was fascinated by the way Deborah Wiles used pictures, posters, speeches, advertisements, magazine clippings and more to immerse readers into the setting of the 1960s. I wondered if children would have trouble understanding the context of this period in history, but both of the strong middle school readers I lent my copy to were very interested in both the history and the story. If you like book trailers, head over to Deborah Wiles' website to see an interview, book trailer and documentary video. For an interesting in-depth conversation with Deborah Wiles, head over to Read-Write-Think and listen to their podcast.

I can't wait to listen to the audiobook of this novel. Deborah Wiles has written that the producers did a fantastic job of using sounds, speeches and sound effects to immerse readers in this period of history, just as she did visually in the book. I think this method will particularly grab my children, giving them a special sense of this book. Below is a clip from the audiobook, to give you a sense. (source: Audio Book Store)

Countdown is the first installment in Deborah Wile's 1960s trilogy. I am intrigued to read the next in the series, although it's not clear when it will be published.

Countdown received a lot of critical praise, including:

A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, 2010
An Best Book of 2010, Top Ten Middle Grade Books
A Booklist Editor’s Choice for 2010
A Book Links Lasting Connection of 2010
A Best Books of 2010, The Christian Science Monitor

If you like Countdown for the historical photographs, I would encourage you to try Marching for Freedom, by Elizabeth Partridge. If you like Countdown for the coming of age story within historical fiction, you might enjoy this year's Newbery winner: Moon Over Manifest.

The review copy came from our home library collection. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.


  1. I loved Countdown. Very happy that there are two more coming out.

  2. Doret, thanks for the comment. Have you heard when the next one is coming out?

    I'm also really looking forward to listening to the audiobook for Countdown. I haven't had a chance to do that yet. Have you heard from anyone who has?