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Review of Countdown

wiles_countdownCountdown [The Sixties Trilogy]
by Deborah Wiles
Intermediate     Scholastic     394 pp.
5/10     978-0-545-10605-4     $17.99     g

Even the weakest history student knows that the world didn’t end during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, yet it can be hard to shrug off the old-time geopolitical jitters in this first-rate novel — especially when its eye-grabbing graphic spreads of Cold War–era images, lyrics, speeches, and headlines, shrewdly interspersed throughout the book, come into view. Eleven-year-old Franny Chapman is the narrator, an Air Force brat and middle child living in suburban Maryland who enjoys trying out new words and feeling persecuted at home and at school. But with JFK facing down the Communists, a father on active duty, a disapproving mother, an anxious little brother, a secretive older sister,  and a shell-shocked great uncle with blueprints for a bomb shelter, Franny certainly has cause to feel on edge. Because the graphics provide most of the novel’s social commentary and historical explication (including a superb interpretation of President Kennedy’s speech to a nervous nation on October 22, 1962), the prose is free to focus on characters; and the dialogue is often rat-a-tat sharp. Franny’s rivalry with a frenemy, mostly over a cute boy back in town, sets off a subplot that picks up speed over the second half of the novel. Another subplot, about older  sister Jo Ellen’s clandestine civil rights efforts, appears to be laying a foundation for the next volume of a projected trilogy. The larger story, however, told here in an expert coupling of text and design, is how life endures, even triumphs, no matter how perilous the times.

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