Here’s something new in the world of children’s literature—a documentary novel, in which the narrator’s fictional story set in 1962 is interwoven with photographs, newspaper headlines, song lyrics and ads. The narrative, however, is not stuck in one particular era; it extends back in time through Uncle Otts’ stories of World War I, and forward through the author’s expository pieces on such topics as John F. Kennedy and the later Civil Rights movement. It’s an effective way to demonstrate how our lives are wrapped up in our times, affected by the past and shaping the future.

Franny Chapman is 11 years old and in fifth grade, trying to balance her home life, school life and all of the bad news about the state of the world. TV reports about Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis and duck-and-cover-drills at school make her confused and fearful. She composes a letter to Khrushchev, keeps up with her school work and helps around the house, but she’s convinced she’s “a goner, a kid who stays up half the night trying to figure out the horror of the world and trying to survive it.”

She has to survive fifth grade, too—a new awareness of boys, a first boy-girl party, a friend who becomes not so friendly and an older sister who doesn’t seem to have time for her anymore.

Franny rings true, her voice pitch-perfect, as an intelligent and earnest young girl just trying to get along. She does survive and even becomes a hero, loses a friend and regains her, and finds a sense of herself in the larger scheme of things. By the end of this innovative and finely wrought novel, Franny sees the sense of her older sister’s advice: “There are always scary things happening in the world. There are always wonderful things happening. And it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to approach the world . . . how you’re going to live in it, and what you’re going to do.”

Countdown is a sure contender for this year’s Newbery Medal.

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