Saturday, May 11, 2013

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Image from
Scholastic, 2010.

It’s 1962 and 11 year old Franny Chapman is sure she is invisible. Everyone notices her beautiful older sister Jo Ellen and her saintly little brother Drew, but Franny somehow gets lost in the middle. Franny feels like her world, once so orderly, routine, and safe, is falling apart. Jo Ellen is getting mysterious coded messages in the mail (Just like Nancy Drew, thinks Franny!), her beloved Uncle Otts seems to be haunted by his years fighting in World War II, and Franny’s best friend isn’t acting like a friend anymore. But even worse, Franny is afraid. The United States is in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the whole world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for a bomb to explode. As Franny learns the meaning of friendship and family, she also learns how to deal with fear and uncertainty. “It’s not the calamity that’s the hard part. It’s figuring out how to love one another through it—that’s the hard part.”

In this “documentary novel,” Wiles seamlessly intertwines Franny’s personal drama with historical events. Franny’s voice is funny and touching by turns. Her worries are universal and her emotions are relatable. Franny’s chronological narrative is interspersed with historical montages. These pages combine black and white photos and illustrations of people, events, and items of the 1960’s (Khrushchev, Bert the Turtle, maps, fallout shelters, etc.) with song lyrics and quotations. In addition, short, engaging biographies of people who influenced events in the 1960’s are sprinkled throughout the book. Biographies include, Pete Seeger, the Kennedys, Harry S Truman, and Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer. Back matter includes notes about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a bibliography, and detailed source notes. Although this book is set more than 50 years ago, the themes are timely and relevant today.  Use this book for a book club or classroom discussion.

I have also listened to the audiobook and highly recommend it. Sound effects, music, and quotations spoken by a variety of voice actors create a soundscape that brings to life the 1960’s. These sound montages serve the same purpose as the visual montages do in the print version. This is a great book to read and listen to at the same time, as each format expands upon the story in a different way. If you're sharing this book with the class, try having students read a chapter and then listen to a chapter. 

Take a look at an excerpt of the book to see how photographs and quotations are integrated into the story. You can also listen to a chapter of the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Emma Galvin.

*Check out Connie Rockman’s excellent discussion guide, which includes discussion questions, an interview with Wiles, and suggested further reading.

*Play some of the songs mentioned in the text. Discuss the feeling of the songs, as well as their lyrics. How do these songs help to tell Franny’s story? Here is a partial list of songs in the book, (some recording artists noted):
Abiyoyo (Pete Seeger)
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Chain Gang (Same Cooke)
Do You Love Me? (The Contours)
Wonderful World (Sam Cooke)
Guantanamera (Pete Seeger)
Hit the Road, Jack (Ray Charles)
If I had a Hammer (Pete Seeger)
Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
John Henry (Pete Seeger)
The Loco-Motion (Little Eva)
Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore (Pete Seeger)
Monster Mash
Moon River
Runaway (Del Shannon)
Stop, Mister Postman
Theme from A Summer Place
When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ along

*Non-fiction books about the 1960’s and the Cuban Missile Crisis:

*Readalikes set in the 1960's:
Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez
The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez
Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell

*More middle grade books by Wiles:
Age 10+ / Grade 5+


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