I do love reading books. You may have guessed by now. Even
after decades of bibliophilia I still have experiences that are unique
and memorable. A recent one was encountering Deborah Wiles' Countdown.
Protagonist Frannie and her fifth grade classmates are on the
playground at recess. The air-raid signal goes off. Even the teachers
aren't quite sure what to do. Outside with no desk to duck under,
Frannie is sure they are all going to die.
The year is 1962. The island of Cuba is on everyone's minds.
President Kennedy announces that Russia is preparing missile sites
there capable of launching attacks on any city in the United States.
Franny and her peers are constantly being reminded that no matter
where they go and what they do they must be prepared to protect
themselves from nuclear annihilation by way of atom bomb. You
understand the depth of the fear in kids' minds when you read
Frannie's reaction to her parents' evening plans the day after
Kennedy's speech: "Bowling, last night we were worried about being
incinerated, and tonight there is bowling?"
Frannie's personal world reflects the turbulance of the national
scene. Her war veteran uncle is gung ho to tear up the lawn to build
a bomb shelter. Her very proper mom feels that talk about bombs is
inappropriate for young ears. Her military dad is often away, dealing
with the crisis. Her college sister is involved in mysterious
activities. Her younger brother carries a dog eared volume of Our
Friend The Atom around like a security blanket. Her best friend is
ditching her for other girls in a very mean way...
If this was just a fascinating story with plausible characters
and a thought provoking premise, that would be enough. Its format
makes it so much more. Momentos from 1962 including:
*duck and cover literature featuring Bert the Turtle
*Miss America's crowning
*pictures from the Civil Rights Movement
*the cover of a Nancy Drew book
*pictures of families posing in bomb shelters
can really help bring that time alive for kids who weren't born then.
It's a brilliant melding of word and image. Some pages carry ironic
juxtapositions. The beginning of the Students for a Democratic Society
manifesto is superimposed on a picture of an immaculately coiffed and
groomed woman with the prerequisite pearl necklace pouring tea into a
china cup. A Civil Defense poster is overlaid with the words to Where
Have All The Flowers Gone?.
On the title page Countdown is billed as book one of a sixties
trilogy. I simply can't wait to see what comes next.
On a personal note, I remember the cold war. I did my best back then
not to think about it. In my mind there was not really anything we
could do. I was not at all convinced that school issue desks would
save us from nuclear anihilation. Poof. We'd be dust. At least it
would be fast. Now Smokey the Bear terrified me. When he announced
that "only you can prevent forest fires" I took that as a mandate. I
used to lie awake nights thinking how in the world I'd pull that off.
A great big shout out goes out to our schools' guidance counselors who
help our kids cope with concerns ranging from our nation's fears to
what goes down at home and on the playground.
Julia Emily Hathaway
Sent from my iPod