Heavens to Murgatroyd! Countdown historical fiction is the bomb!

June 18, 2010 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

Countdown: The Sixties Trilogy, Book One by Deborah Wiles; published by Scholastic, New York; 2010.

Fall of 1962.  Khrushchev and Kennedy are in a Bay of Pigs stand-off.  Tension is mounting.  At school, Bert the Turtle is reminding children to “Duck and Cover” in case the Soviets bomb the neighborhood.  Franny Chapman, a fifth grader, is struggling with her own fears.  Her family is new to the Washington, D.C. suburb so friendships are a fragile commodity.  Her father is a fighter pilot in charge of protecting Airforce One and the President of the United States; her mother is overly concerned with appearances and polite society; sister Jo Ellen is a college student that disappears; and brother Drew is  a third grader aspiring to be an astronaut.  Uncle Otts, her pseudo-grandfather, is struggling with issues that seem like a cross between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alzheimer’s.  Heavens to Murgatroyd, it’s enough to send a girl into a bunker for a lifetime.  So much is going on in Franny’s life!

OK, so enough about the storyline.  There is deep, rich history interspersed, real primary sources (like transcripts of actual broadcasts and photographs) and tastes of the time (like song lyrics and biographies of important politicians and musicians).  How do you categorize a book like this?  Wiles describes it as a documentary novel and I like that; I’d go so far as to add “edutaining” documentary novel to the descriptor.

For me, Countdown reads like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Green Glass Sea. The end pages are rippled, like the grooves in an old lp or 45 recording.  Often the concentric circles, like on an old record or even like sound waves, are used in the graphics behind the non-fiction portions of the book.  Portrait photographs, images of the ships surrounding Cuba,  song lyrics, biographies, transcripts, all work together to set the historical backdrop of Franny’s story.  I had to read the book twice to squeeze out all the information and entertainment I could get.  If it were up to me, I’d quickly add this book to the short list for the Newbery Medal.

Although Countdown is nominated for YALSA’s 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults, I think this book is appropriate for upper middle school students.  It’s like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret; written, perhaps, for an upper-elementary to early middle school crowd, but certainly appealing to young adults.  With its “documentary novel” style, this book works for a very wide-range of readers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a Newbery nominee in addition to some YALSA nominations!

I’d definitely add this book to a list of superior historical fiction.  I think I’d also create a booklist highlighting uniquely crafted books, including Countdown and The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Of course it’s a natural for a display about the early 1960’s, with a couple of CDs (of course, including Del Shannon’s Runaway) as well as nonfiction about the political, social and entertainment settings.


Entry filed under: Historical Fiction, Starred Review Book (Horn Book, Booklist. School Library Journal, Kirkus or PW). Tags: , , , , , , .

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