I just (like, 5 minutes ago) finished reading a new young adult novel from Deborah Wiles called Countdown. It’s set in the 1960s, which is not usually something that piques my interest, and it didn’t this time. What grabbed me, made me pick the book up and add it to my TBR pile, was its format.
Wiles calls it a documentary novel, which is quite appropriate, I must say. The novel piece follows Franny Chapman, a fifth-grader living outside of Washington, DC, in 1962. As she struggles with ordinary problems — an ex best friend, a cute boy, a pesky saint of a younger brother, a teacher who inexplicably skips over her during social studies read aloud — the Cuban Missile Crisis flares. The documentary piece pops up here and there between chapters of the novel: advertisements, photographs, song lyrics, quotes that set the stage of the tumultuous early 1960s. And finally, there are a few brief biographies of important people spaced throughout the book: Pete Seeger, JFK, Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer.
I loved Franny. Wiles has distilled into her main character the essence of what it is to be a kid who is growing up. There is no doubt about whose voice is relating the story to you. I also loved the historical element. Those short bursts of history do a great deal to evoke Franny’s world; you even have the appropriate songs running through your head as you’re reading! And, like any great novel, the plot wasn’t predictable and yet, as it resolved itself, it felt right to me. Author Kristin Cashore wrote in her blog today about the third book in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, which isn’t out yet: “I have faith that the author will tell a story that’ll feel right to me.” That’s exactly what Wiles did with Countdown.
(If you haven’t yet read Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore and The Hunger Cames and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, you must go and do it RIGHT! NOW! They are FANTASTIC, all of them. Mockingjay, the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, will be out in August — wheee! — and Bitterblue, companion to Graceling and Fire, is in the works.)