As the person who decides what books our stores will carry, I read a lot of kids’ novels. Sometimes I can tell right away if a book will be right or wrong for us, but there’s a vast middle-ground through which I slog regularly. There are times when I feel I’ve lost all critical faculties (hmm, maybe this is a good book, it seems okay, why am I not excited about it…). Then there’s fantasy fatigue, when I just can’t face another book about an 11/12/13 year-old with mysterious magical powers who has just discovered that s/he is crucial to the survival of civilization/life in another dimension/ancient gods and goddesses. But every now and then, just as I feel I’m sinking beneath the flood, the waters part and there stands a really good book.
So here’s the latest in that category:
Countdown, by Deborah Wiles, which came out this month.
It’s the story of an 11 year-old girl during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Her father is a career military officer stationed in suburban Washington DC. Franny tries to make sense of the escalating crisis at the same time that she’s dealing with a realignment of her group of friends (is she being pushed into the out crowd?), a shell-shocked uncle who’s getting worse, and a rebellious older sister who has discovered the civil rights movement. The list may sound a bit heavy-handed, but the characters have dimension and the execution is very well crafted. Into these plot lines, Deborah Wiles weaves collages of history: mini-bios of important figures of the time, lots of photographs, rock’n’roll lyrics, newspaper clips.
My overwhelming feeling after reading it was, yes, she got it right: she really presented the feelings and atmosphere that I lived through that fall of 1962. This was followed by, but what will 21st-century kids think of it? I got one positive review back from a fifth grader whose father reported she stayed up late reading and asked him lots of questions about the era the next morning. Another kid reader has come back for a second copy to give a friend – always a good sign.
I’ve been a big fan of Wiles’ Love, Ruby Lavender (the opening chapter, when a girl helps her animal-activist grandmother liberate some chickens from a chicken farm, is a stitch). It has two companion books, Each Little Bird That Sings and The Aurora County All-Stars. They’re not as ambitious as Countdown, but all have great characters, all in the same small southern town. I went to a luncheon with Wiles last week, and she talked about Countdown as the first in a trilogy about the Sixties. But like the earlier trilogy, the main characters will be different in each book although some of the settings will be the same. I look forward to them.