The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 1, 2012

Jeana Gockley: History highlighted in young-reader novels

By Jeana Gockley
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — “Countdown” by Deborah Wiles

4th-8th Grade

This debut book in Deborah Wiles’ “Sixties Trilogy” takes place in Maryland, just outside Andrews Air Force Base during the fall of 1962.

The novel’s main character, 11-year-old Franny Chapman -- who the author based on herself -- is dealing with a failing friendship, her Uncle Otts’ embarrassing war flashbacks, her older sister’s disappearance, her saintly little brother’s inability to be anything less than perfect, and her feelings for a cute boy who recently moved in across the street.

While Franny’s everyday issues seem like more than enough for the average adolescent to handle, author Wiles adds a historical twist to this chapter book and incorporates the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis into the background of the story. So not only does Franny, who loves a good Nancy Drew mystery book, have to solve her personal problems, she has to practice “duck and cover” drills at her school and, more importantly, keep her fear of being bombed at bay.

Deborah Wiles documentary novel is a powerful book about a time period that the majority of today’s youth will know little to nothing about. However, her inclusion of black and white photographs, news advertisements, biographies, music lyrics and other footage from 1962 throughout the book will provide a visual hook for readers.

This almost 400-page book has a lot going on, but Wiles does an exceptional job combining Franny’s story and historical world events. Readers may not know about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they will relate based on their knowledge of fear and the everyday struggle to survive adolescence.

Wiles has written a standout that should not be missed.

“Woods Runner" by Gary Paulsen

4th-8th Grade

The year is 1776 and 13-year-old Samuel lives in the Pennsylvania wilderness with his parents. While Samuel has heard rumors of fighting in the cities to the East, he does not give it much thought, because he and his family seem so far away.

Despite the distance, the war does come to Samuel, in the form of a British and Iroquois attack on his village, in which his parents are kidnapped. Samuel is hunting when the attack happens, but has enough knowledge of tracking and the wilderness to pick up the group’s trail several hours later. It is his hope to rescue his parents, but along the way he encounters many obstacles and witnesses unspeakable violence. Thankfully, he also meets unexpected allies and it is with their help that he is able to continue his journey.

The American Revolution comes alive through Paulsen’s writing. His unique perspective outside of the “formal” fighting gives readers a sense of what the war was really like for everyday people. Readers will be hard pressed to stop reading Samuel’s story and some might be intrigued enough to use the information in the book as a starting point for their own research about the long and bloody war that claimed so many lives.

Jeana Gockley is the children’s librarian for the Joplin Public Library.