Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

172. Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Publication: Scholastic Press (May 1, 2010), Hardcover, 400pp / ISBN 0545106052
Genre: Historical Fiction, Documentary Novel, MG
Read: August 2010
Source: Library
Summary from Amazon:

It’s 1962, and it seems everyone is living in fear. Twelve-year-old Franny Chapman lives with her family in Washington, DC, during the days surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amidst the pervasive threat of nuclear war, Franny must face the tension between herself and her younger brother, figure out where she fits in with her family, and look beyond outward appearances. For Franny, as for all Americans, it’s going to be a formative year.


I found this on the new book shelf at the library where I work and was immediately attracted by a) the cover and b) the numerous photos and documents reproduced inside. You may be wondering what a “documentary novel” is– well, that’s a phrase the author coined herself, and basically it means a historical fiction novel with actual stuff from that historical time period mixed in for visuals.

So alongside a chapter about kids practicing ducking and covering, for instance, is images of the propaganda depicting just that. It’s very interesting stuff, and I think it actually makes the novel more effective. Reading about Franny’s experiences during the 60’s is one thing; she’s a fictional character, and that automatically puts a distance between the actual events and what’s being presented in the book. The addition of photos, movie stills, maps, etc. closes that distance and brings the whole thing more into the realm of reality.

Countdown is furthermore brought into reality by the fact that Deborah Wiles went through almost exactly what Franny went through in the book. She lived where Franny lived, she went to a version of the school Franny went to, and Franny’s friends were a version of Ms Wiles’ friends. The story is told with an authority that you tend to get with people writing autobiographical fiction books, and I really enjoyed that.

There’s lots of interesting details in Countdown. It essentially takes place in a middle class white person bubble, but there are hints to what’s going on in the rest of the world– protests, marches, etc– and I hope that’s explored more in the next book. There’s also big themes of friendship and family and just plain ol’ kid-growing-up, which was nice because it kept the book grounded in real life– I know I keep saying that– and made it about the PEOPLE who lived through the 60’s rather than just what was going on in the 60’s era.

So, Countdown: a really excellent book! And I’m looking forward to reading the next two in the series whenever they come out.


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Other reviews: The Reading Zone | Semicolon | Reading and Rooibos | GalleySmith | The Happy Nappy Bookseller

If you like this book you might also like Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, a YA book set during WWII that deals with a lot of the same feelings and situations that Countdown deals with like friendships, being loyal to your country and what that means when individuals get involved, and the terror of living during an unsteady time. Or you might like Spying on Miss Muller by Eve Bunting, another WWII era YA book set in a girls’ boarding school that deals with friendship, peer pressure, acceptance and tolerance, and boys.

Also: I’m actually taking a class on the 1960’s in America this semester! It’s super interesting so far, and we’re reading really good books (and watching a few movies).

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6 thoughts on “Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles”

    1. It’s a trilogy! I have no idea what the second one’s going to be about because I haven’t looked, but I do know that they’re at least all set in the 60’s.

  1. What movies? Anything good?

    I love the idea of a documentary novel! This is one of the things I love about Mike Carey’s new(ish) comic series The Unwritten–it’s got pages in there that are supposed to be excerpts from newspapers, TV shows, online message boards, and like that. Of course those things are all made up, so it’s not quite the same, but it does add texture to the book!

  2. I’ve heard of this book, but I had no idea it contained documentary-type stuff included in it. I would read this book based on the cover alone, but that additional info makes me want to read it so much more. Will definitely be keeping an eye out for this one.

  3. Seems like this would make a great companion read to The Help, which is the other novel set in 1962 which I plan to get to. This sounds great – thanks for the review!

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