Countdown by Deborah Wiles. 2010. Scholastic Press.

Recommended ages

Grades 5-8


Reading this book made me think: where was I during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, I was six years old living in Roseburg, Oregon. Perhaps that’s why I don’t remember much about it.  Countdown helped fill in the blanks for me. It’s 1962, and Franny, a fifth grader living in Maryland just around the corner from Washington, D.C., is dealing with all the normal things a kid her age has to face. She’s going to school, handling the ups and downs of friendships, and the mysteries of family, including a nearly perfect younger brother and an older sister who is not around as much as she used to be. Oh, and her father’s in the Air Force, her older uncle, a World War I veteran living with them, seems to be crazy, and the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war over events in nearby Cuba. On the surface this sounds like the makings of a pretty straightforward piece of historical fiction about life during the tumultuous sixties, but the format of the book transforms this into something very different. The publishers are calling this book a documentary novel, and are billing it as the first installment of a trilogy. So what makes it a documentary novel? Presentation!! (See What’s NEW about those NEW trait kits?? Six Trait Gurus Oct. 7, 2010) To help readers immerse themselves in the time period, the author has woven historical photographs, quotations, folk song lyrics, Civil Defense pamphlets, advertisements, snippets of newspaper articles, short biographies of key figures, and much more. Through all these extras, readers not only get to practice the fine points of the duck and cover drill but really share the fear that Franny, her family, her teachers, and the world felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The format may make it a challenge for a traditional chapter book read-aloud, but it can be done, especially with the help of a document camera so students can see and hear all that this book has to offer.

In the Classroom

  • What makes this book special is it’s format—your students are going to have to experience the visuals included to get the full impact of the story. Try sharing a favorite picture book without sharing the pictures. How did your audience react? Yes, you get the story but not the whole story. Discuss with your students the impact the extras in Countdown have on both their understanding and appreciation of the author’s story.
  • On page 64, Franny begins a draft of a personal letter to Nikita Krushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (She comes back to her letter several times during the story.) Have your students ever thought of writing to the President or another world leader? Having a go with this type of letter is a great way to focus attention on the traits of ideas (focused message), organization (greeting, body, closing), and particularly, voice (honoring the receiver).
  • Students could work individually or in small groups to do research on one of the many historical figures—JFK, Pete Seeger, Fannie Lou Hamer, etc., events, or cultural icons discussed in the story or highlighted in one of the visuals.
  • On page 166, Franny says that school is …”like living on another planet.” This would be a great topic for students to react to in writing. Read the page, including her recounting of her classroom rules to launch a pre-writing discussion.
  • Living and dealing with fear is one of Countdown’s themes. Talk about the causes of fear in Franny’s world to help students connect to the fear they may be dealing with in their own lives. Writing a personal definition of fear might be a great way to begin.
  • Discuss the elements of presentation that are critical to the success of this book—font choice, page layout, the connections between the text and the illustrations, color choices, etc.
  • Music is very important to Franny. She risks her sister’s wrath by sneaking into Jo Ellen’s room to play her 45’s—records (both terms may need clarificationJ). The music helps her cope with all the stress in her life. She believes the musical artists “understand” her. Is music important to any of your students? With appropriate boundaries, students could bring in some music to share and write about.
  • Team this book up with Paul Fleischman’s Dateline Troy, Sid Fleischman’s Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini, or The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick to further explore the ways that interesting presentation can support and enrich great story telling and non-fiction writing. (See also Years of Dust by Albert Marrin, Six Trait Gurus Sept. 21, 2010)