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These days, when, as our leaders remind us, nuclear weapons are more likely to be detonated in a terrorist’s backpack or delivered in a courier package than dropped from a plane, archival footage of 1960s schoolchildren ducking and covering under their school desks, bracing themselves for a nuclear blast, seems almost comical, or, at the very least, naïve.

But as Deborah Wiles reminds us in her novel, the threat of nuclear war was an almost palpable reality in those days, particularly during the tense 1962 standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. During that time, the whole country lived in terror that, in the wake of a few misguided words or a hasty finger on a button, life as we know it would be over in a moment.

We’ve probably all seen photographs of an anxious young President Kennedy and his advisors, doing their best to make good choices while also asserting America’s authority and keeping the country safe. But how many of us --- especially the young audience for Deborah Wiles --- have any kind of personal connection to this time anymore, other than perhaps a few anecdotes from parents or grandparents? Here, Wiles adeptly dovetails the political with the personal, as she draws a portrait of one particular family trying hard to hold themselves together as the world seems in danger of falling apart.

Franny Chapman is a typical 11-year-old, concerned with pleasing her teacher, keeping her friends, impressing boys (or at least not embarrassing herself in front of them) and, most of all, finding peace and stability at home. In October 1962, however, peace seems to be in short supply in the world, and Franny’s home is no exception. Her uncle Otts, a war veteran, wanders through the neighborhood, a figure of fun for the other kids and of deep shame for her. Franny’s younger brother Drew, the golden child of the family, makes her look selfish and inept by comparison. And their beautiful older sister, Jo Ellen, seems to be hiding a secret that is distancing her from the rest of their family.

Meanwhile, their father, an Air Force pilot, is a constant reminder that the threat of war could strike very close to home. Well-meaning, smart, inquisitive Franny has a lot to make sense of --- starting at her front door and extending to a big standoff over a small island far away. Franny’s story is a vivid reminder that, no matter how powerless people may feel in the face of big world events, we all have the power to effect change in our own living rooms, classrooms and neighborhoods.

Franny’s story is compelling in its own right, but in Deborah Wiles, Wiles has added layers upon layers of additional meaning and context through the incorporation of dozens of pieces of original documentary sources --- photographs, song lyrics, quotes, advertisements, and more --- that would have surrounded Franny and her family in 1962. Many of the photographs and original source material are related to the Cold War, Communism and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but others are more personal --- everything from Nancy Drew book jackets to James Bond promotional posters to photos of a young Bob Dylan. Footage from the Civil Rights movement also helps round out the political and social backdrop of Franny’s world.

Deborah Wiles is the first in a projected Sixties Trilogy that will explore other years and issues from this turbulent, transformative decade through the lens of young people’s personal stories. If they’re all as dense and rich as Deborah Wiles, Wiles will have given young readers a comprehensive, powerfully personal portrait of an age.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 1, 2010

by Deborah Wiles

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2010
  • Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult 11+
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • ISBN-10: 0545106052
  • ISBN-13: 9780545106054