I have recently read two middle grade books that involve military families, crossroads in history and engaging girls in the process of discovering their place in the world. Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry takes place in Berlin just after the Berlin wall comes down, and Deborah Wiles’ Count Down takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Maryland. I enjoyed both of these books and admire their authors’ ability to craft historic fiction that wears its era naturally and as an exciting and compelling backdrop to their protagonists’ journeys. Here are my Goodreads reviews.
Second Fiddle: Rosanne Parry handles this story of a young girl finding her confidence in friendship and her own musical ability, told against the backdrop of Berlin in the early 90’s, surely and with affection. I loved all three of her girls, distinct characters all, and enjoyed learning about military life and culture through each of them. The depth of the portrayal of music in a young life, the first glimmerings of a crush on an impossible object of admiration, daring actions and espionage, as well as the historical verisimilitude are a difficult mix to pull off, but I read this story with absorption. I rooted for Jody, her friends, her music and her escaped Russian soldier. I rooted for her family and for the trio to do well in the music competition. I relished the episode in Paris with its unexpected developments and its vivid descriptions and interactions. And I thought the relationship of Jody to her music, how it reflected her own sense of self, gave her a sense of accomplishment and mastery in an uncertain time and afforded joy was lovely. Just: yay!
Deborah Wiles spoke at last year’s SCBWI Western Washington conference and given her lovely presentation on the creation of her novel Count Down and the fact that I, too grew up in this era, for the life of me I can’t say why I waited so long to read this book. I listened to it as an audio book, so the illustrations, photographs and narrative asides made for a slightly cluttered listen, but Emma Galvin did a lovely job of narration.
This story of 12 year old Franny Chapman and her family, her father a pilot on Air Force One during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Wiles does a terrific job of the psychological setting of that Russia and A-Bomb-obsessed time, and holds to her narrator’s point of view, and the fear and dawning understanding of the complexity of issues that influence family choices and behaviors. The struggle to matter within the family, with a ‘saintly’ younger brother, a glamorous older sister and a shell shocked great uncle, the changes in friendships at a time when some girls grow up faster than other girls, the primacy of school and importance of every assignment and classroom occurrence, the sudden infatuation with a boy who was just a pal a year ago – all of these threads come together in this story of a girl working on becoming her best self. Ultimately, Franny takes her next step in growing up and finds herself secure within her strict but loving family.
Funny, immersive and utterly human, Countdown is the first in a Sixties trilogy. I look forward to the next book, though Countdown stands on its own, whole and complete. The choice to include photographs, quotes and other imagery from the time will no doubt help its readership understand the era and the context for much of Franny’s anxiety. For me, the story alone would have been enough.
With so many American families dealing with lives in the military, the cultural involvement, loss and adjustment to both children and adults, fiction that reflects difficulties as well as strengths within these experiences are necessary and welcome. These two also offer excellent writing, memorable characters and great storytelling and that’s a really, really good thing.
As always, should you choose to buy, consider your local independent bookstore, which also offers its own culture, inclusion and an important community gathering place.