Monday, July 25, 2011

Our friend the atom

When do you think would have been the best time to have been a kid? I guess there's something to be said for the pioneer days when life was simpler and kids grew up on farms or in smaller communities. At least that's the feeling I got from reading The Great Brain books when I was a kid - although that was the late 1890s and not technically the "pioneer days" anymore. I grew up in the 1980s and I can think of lots of good things about that time - as well as a few 'not-so-good' things. But I'd probably say the 1950s and early 60s seem like a great time - at least as they're usually portrayed in movies and books. The War was past and the national mood was very optimistic. The economy was booming and scientific advances held great promise. The middle class was expanding and moving to the suburbs and it was all before the turmoil of the latter half of the Sixties. Everything just seemed so full of potential - although I guess there was the shadow of the Cold War looming.

CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles presents an interesting perspective on how the Cold War might have affected kids. It's 1962 and 11 year-old Franny Chapman’s best friend seems to be edging away from her, she's worried her older sister Jo Ellen might be a communist, and her perfect younger brother Drew is obsessed with being an astronaut and constantly reads his favorite book, "Our Friend the Atom." Her father is a pilot at Andrews Air Force Base, her mom is stressed out, and her Uncle Otts (who lives with them) is losing his mind. On top of all this are tensions between the USA and the USSR and the escalating Cuban Missile Crisis. With regular air raid drills and nuclear missiles aimed at the country, suddenly the atom doesn't seem so friendly anymore.

I love the format of this book which is interspersed with information from around 1962 such as advertisements for bomb shelters, Bert the Turtle "duck and cover" posters, b&w photos, news broadcasts, songs and speeches, and essays on notable people - adding a wonderful element of history to the narrative. Unfortunately, it's slow-starting which makes it hard to feel much of a connection with Franny and I wonder how many kids would have the patience to keep reading long enough to be drawn in, which is regrettable because the ending is actually kind of nice. (And I personally find the first-person present-tense narrative rather annoying.) But I think the book's strong points are that interesting format that provides a window into the culture and the great job it does of portraying the fear people felt at the Cuban Missile Crisis. And because of those things it's a book I can recommend to kids in the 9-12 age group. And maybe I'll stick with the 80s as being a better time to grow up. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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