CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press 2010. 400 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780545106054.

Once I ordered a nonfiction book for a school library because it included “primary sources”. I was disappointed to find that “primary sources” meant two or three one sentence quotes. Countdown really does include primary sources. It’s a documentary novel. The documentary portion of the novel captures the national politics and international politics of the early 60s, as well as the social climate. This part of the novel is woven in between the story of Franny’s day-to-day life as an 11-year-old during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the international scene, Kennedy and Khrushchev are engaged in a staring match over the missiles in Cuba. On the national scene, blacks are protesting their treatment in the segregated South. There is a buildup of military advisors in Vietnam. Manned space exploration captures the country’s imagination. The documentary portion includes short biographies of Pete Seeger, JFK and civil rights activist Mary Lou Hamer, as well as many, many quotes from news and government agencies and from speeches. It also includes a remarkable number of photographs.

In Franny’s life, things are changing. Her older sister has become involved with a group of people trying to change the world. Her best friend is acting like her worst enemy. Her father’s uncle responds to the threat of nuclear attack in a way that makes no sense to Franny. And on top of all of this, the missile crisis makes her afraid she may not live long enough to grow up.

On the day after Kennedy’s speech to the nation about the Cuban missile crisis, Franny feels that everything has changed. The “duck and cover” instructions become more intrusive in Franny’s story. Her thoughts seem to be returning more and more frequently to the fear that she’ll die tomorrow. She’s been composing a letter to Khrushchev for some time, but the crisis makes it even more important that she try to tell him that the citizens of the US aren’t so different from the citizens of the Soviet Union. It’s as if by communicating to Khrushchev, she can act in a political way to make the situation better.

I was four years old during the Cuban missile crisis. I’d been going to Pete’s Seeger concerts for four years by that time. A year later my parents went to the March on Washington.  As I grew I became terrified of nuclear war, just as Franny was. Wiles has rendered my experience of the 60s very accurately.

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The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward

The Brothers KennedyThe Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward. Written by Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Amy June Bates. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010. 40 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 4-8. ISBN: 9781416991588.

The Brothers Kennedy captures the magic and tragedy of Joseph Kennedy’s sons. The first part of the book features a chapter each on the childhood and young adulthood of Joe, John, Robert and Edward. Each brother is different, but each has a strong sense of competitiveness, of the importance of public service, of compassion and of fairness.

The second part of the book addresses the hope represented by John and Robert and Edward, and the tragic loss of hope with the deaths of Joe and John and Robert. It also looks at Edward’s the long career in the Senate, carrying forward the vision of the Kennedy’s. John and Robert both work for civil rights for African-Americans. Edward was present when Barack Obama was nominated by the Democratic Party to be its presidential candidate.

The book doesn’t present a complete picture of the Kennedy brothers. There is no mention of Chappaquiddick or of the famous womanizing of the Kennedy men. It doesn’t address the intricacies of John’s policies as president. There’s no need for a complete picture in this book, in fact it would be inappropriate for the target age group. This is a book that presents the magic of the Kennedys to a new generation.

The illustrations are outstanding. My favorite is an illustration of John as he wins the presidency and is inaugurated. All but one of the illustrations contain boys and young men full of energy. Towards the end of the book is an illustration of Edward sitting on the stage as Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination. He is old and ill in this illustration, an elder statesman who has lived see what he worked so hard to bring about.

There are extensive notes at the end of the book, as well as a timeline and a list of sources.

I worry that kids in school today don’t have the same feeling about the Kennedys that I do. It’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words, but Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates capture it in their words and illustrations.

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John F. Kennedy: A Photographic Story of a Life

DD179 DK Bio JFK_PPB.qxdJohn F. Kennedy: A Photographic Story of a Life by Howard S. Kaplan. DK Publishing, 2004. 128 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-17. ISBN: 9780756603403.

This book is adequate. It’s full of solid information about Kennedy. He wasn’t healthy, he competed with his older brother throughout their childhood and adolescence, he was smart but not a great student, he was a hero in the second world war when his PT boat was fired on and fell to pieces, he started in the House of Representatives, then moved to the Senate, and finally to the White House. Along the way he married Jacqueline Bouvier and they had two children.

These are all facts. I’m impressed with the amount of information in this 128 page book. I was surprised to find facts I didn’t know. For example, I didn’t realize that Jack Kennedy abstained from voting when the Senate voted to censure Joseph McCarthy.  I wish the author had addressed allegations that Kennedy’s father bought the Chicago vote for Kennedy and thus the presidential race.

The book doesn’t read as if it’s crammed with facts. It’s more like a narrative and less like a textbook.

Kennedy was killed when I was five years old. My parents cried as they watched his funeral. Why? His death was a loss beyond words, because in life he had an inexpressible greatness. I wish the book conveyed Kennedy’s place in the American pantheon.

This book is written almost entirely in the present tense. I found the use of present tense confusing when the author wanted to write about events to come and events that had happened already. The present tense, plus the use of “Jack” instead of “Kennedy” or “President Kennedy” serve to make Kennedy seem like a buddy.

The book is full of black and white and color photographs. Each photograph is accompanied by a short paragraph. In addition, short side paragraphs are scattered throughout the book. I sometimes have trouble with DK books because it’s hard to follow the main text with so many distractions. In this book, the distractions are kept to a minimum.

Shortly after Kennedy was killed, I thought it made sense that just as Jesus was resurrected, so Kennedy would be resurrected. If the book spent more time on Kennedy as a human being instead of focusing on the facts of his life, I suspect a reader of the book wouldn’t be surprised that I expected I might see Kennedy on the subway weeks after his death.

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