It's 1962, and it seems everyone is living in fear. Twelve-year-old Franny Chapman lives with her family in Washington, DC, during the days surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amidst the pervasive threat of nuclear war, Franny must face the tension between herself and her younger brother, figure out where she fits in with her family, and look beyond outward appearances. For Franny, as for all Americans, it's going to be a formative year.
Wiles heads north from her familiar Mississippi terrain (Each Little Bird That Sings) for this “documentary novel” set in Maryland during the Cuban missile crisis. Eleven-year-old Franny, a middle child, is in the thick of it—her father (like Wiles’s was) is a pilot stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. Wiles palpably recreates the fear kids felt when air-raid sirens and duck-and-cover drills were routine, and when watching President Kennedy’s televised speech announcing the presence of missiles in Cuba was an extra-credit assignment. Home life offers scant refuge. Franny’s beloved older sister is keeping secrets and regularly disappearing; her mother’s ordered household is upended by the increasingly erratic behavior of Uncle Otts (a WWI veteran); and Franny’s relationship with her best friend Margie is on the brink as both vie for the same boy’s attention. Interwoven with Franny’s first-person, present-tense narration are period photographs, newspaper clippings, excerpts from informational pamphlets (how to build a bomb shelter), advertisements, song lyrics, and short biographical vignettes written in past tense about important figures of the cold war/civil rights era—Harry S. Truman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Pete Seeger. The back-and-forth is occasionally dizzying, but the striking design and heavy emphasis on primary source material may draw in graphic novel fans. Culminating with Franny’s revelation that “It’s not the calamity that’s the hard part. It’s figuring out how to love one another through it,” this story is sure to strike a chord with those living through tough times today. Ages 9-12. (May)