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Countdown - Deborah Wiles 6/29/11 ** Book-a-day Challenge Day 32, Book 38 ** Deborah Wiles has delivered a fascinating book that will be difficult to categorize. The characters are haunting me; I want to read more about the sister's summer trip to Mississippi, but the next book in this planned set of three companion volumes isn't out yet! This documentary novel (a new genre to me) is a fascinating blend of the story of a week in October of 11-year-old Franny WITH quotes, newspaper images, photos, and lyrics about the multitude of issues impacting Americans in 1962.

Franny is the daughter of an Air Force pilot, living in Maryland in 1962. Her 18-year-old sister is becoming involved with a mysterious group of "thinking" friends who want to make changes in America; these changes seem to involve trips to the south. While the sister's activities are just hinted at, the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis are very present in Franny's life. Interwoven with the adults' reactions to the political events are Franny's difficulties with her best friend's changing loyalties, the cute boy who moved in next door, and her uncle, who seems to suffering from Alzheimer's.

Skillfully interleaved with Franny's tale are snippets from the media of 1962: quotes & photos of Kennedy & Khrushchev; comics and newsreel transcripts about ducking & covering in the event of an air raid; biographical info (written at a middle-grades level) about the Roosevelts, Pete Seeger, Truman, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer, and others; images of water fountains and a bombed Freedom Rider bus; a transcript of Kennedy's speech to America on the evening of October 22nd along with the U2 spy plane images; and so much more.

I cannot say enough about the haunting quality of this book. Wiles captures the sense of surrealism that may have surrounded children -- their life of friendships, rivalries, and Halloween parties went on, while the adults whispered around them about world events. The unexplained tension that would have imbued the military household is palpable. Franny grew a tremendous amount in the 10 days covered by this book - her sense of empathy for those around her, as evidenced by her hypothetical letters to Khrushchev and later Kennedy was powerful.

Perhaps the evocative chapter is #25, in which Wiles portrays Franny's school activities on the day after Kennedy's speech. The students begin with an assembly at which they all watch a Civil Defense film on air raid procedures. Later, their teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, talks about her husband's extended Cuban family and all their traditions. The contrast between the hate and fear generated by the film and the love and compassion demonstrated by Mrs. Rodriguez is striking.

All I can say is get the book, read it, and then figure out how to hook your students on it - your students of any age from middle grade and up.