Tag Archives: America

Book Review: Countdown Is a Childlike Recollection

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I picked up Countdown by Deborah Wiles more for its unique format, which uses photographs, pamphlets, quotes, song lyrics, and other memorabilia of the 60s between chapters to place the reader within the time and to broaden the scope of the book’s plot by showing what is happening outside of the protagonist’s personal story, than for its synopsis.  Definitely it’s outside of the genre that I prefer, being a realistic, wartime novel.  The story follows protagonist Franny Chapman, a young girl living in Camp Springs, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., in 1962, during the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Franny’s father works on the air force base in Camp Springs.  Her grandfather is also a war veteran who lives with the family and suffers from PTSD.  Franny lives in fear: fear of death, fear of humiliation, fear of social isolation.  As much as Wiles shows us the 1960s, she also shows us the typical childhood of a child in the 1960s, of any child of any time, dealing with the frustrations of school, the drama of trying to belong in a peer group, childhood crushes, secrets kept from parents, family drama, etc.

I appreciate Wiles’ rather accurate representation of childhood.  Wiles admits in an author’s note at the novel’s end that she drew greatly from her own childhood recollections, and Countdown does read almost like creative nonfiction, again to her credit.  I appreciate that this is a wartime novel that I didn’t loathe (usually I do), but then again, this is not a typical wartime novel that focuses on soldiers, but it focuses instead on the civilians, whose way of life I am more comfortable sharing.

Wiles touched on many of the aspects of American life and controversy in the 1960s (or as far as my scant knowledge is aware): PTSD, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the growing awareness of racial inequality….  Franny, being young and mainly unaware of the intricacies of these situations, was not a narrator to give me any great insight into these events; rather Franny’s perspective offered the raw, emotional fear that these events inspired in the average citizen.

And there’s “fear” again.  I guess if I had to, I would say that that was the overarching impression that this book gave me of the 60s: fear paired with a desire for 50s normality (white picket fence, manicured lawn, and 2.5 kids, et al.).  Whether this was the overarching feeling of the 60s or if it was merely Wiles’ adolescent impression of the time, I do not know.

Readers of the book should not look for deep insight into the 60s but a glance, as if flipping quickly through the pages of a newspaper of the time, and should rather look forward to a realistic childhood adventure and drama, which are well-portrayed, mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, but are not as well-executed as some that I have seen.

***

Wiles, Deborah.  The Sixties Trilogy, Book 1: Countdown.  New York: Scholastic, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Deborah Wiles or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Multiculturalism in All in a Day

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I have had so many requests since I started working at Barnes & Noble for multicultural children’s books, and the honest and sad truth is that there are really only a few and fewer that we keep on the shelves, so I was excited to come across All in a Day, which all but defines multicultural. It tracks eight different characters in eight different countries through a 24-hour cycle. In an attempt to weave the depictions together, a ninth character, who is stranded on an uncharted island, is introduced as the narrative voice. He calls out to the other eight, describing what they are doing at a given point and pleading for rescue from the island where he has been shipwrecked. There’s no explanation for how these messages are transmitted or received.

This book is the product of ten author/illustrators, including such famous names as Eric Carle, the Dillions, Raymond Briggs (others I assume are well known too, though I don’t recognize their works). Each character is done by a different illustrator from a different country. Theoretically, cultural and art school differences are apparent in the illustrations alone, but the average days of these characters more clearly explore cultural differences, where the British boy sleeps in a bed and the Japanese girl sleeps on a mattress on the floor beside her parents, the American boy is sent to bed while his parents celebrate the New Year while the Chinese boy stays awake to set off firecrackers and watch the fireworks. The illustrators compare dreams too, specifically those of a Kenyan boy and the Russian.

The sparse text can be difficult to follow, particularly as the narrative character is set out of line of the others and is the most washed-out, making him difficult to see, and it almost assumes some prior knowledge of the cultures, which I found difficult. The characters are not labeled with their names but with their countries and the current time and can only really be labeled by the narrator who will mention either their country or what they are doing. Not all of them are named on the first pages either, so there are strangers whose lives the reader is following, some of them strangers almost through the whole of the book. This is a book I had to read twice to grasp, and I would have liked to have read more and with more focus when I could digest the book. Its illustrations are its main feature and I think would benefit from some thorough exploration.

In the back of the book are two pages of further explanation and facts for older readers, which I didn’t get to read. These included explanations of how the earth’s rotation creates daytime and night and some information about how timezones work.

This will not be my first choice for a multicultural book (it reminds me of Mirror by Jeannie Baker, which I think is easier to follow, though maybe because that covers only two cultures, and I do not know that Baker has the intimate knowledge of both cultures that these illustrators have with the cultures that they are depicting), but I do certainly appreciate how many cultures the authors capture in a brief 32 pages and the narrator’s attempt at a humorous and cohesive narrative.

***

Anno, Mitsumasa.  All in a Day.  Illus. Gian Calvi, Leo Dillon, Diane Dillon, Ron Brooks, Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs, Akiko Hayashi, Zhu Chengliang, Nicolai Ye. Popov.  New York: Puffin-Penguin, 1999.  First published 1990.

This review is not endorsed by Mitsumasa Anno, any of the illustrators, Puffin Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.