Book Review

Every night, after she’s read a couple of chapters of Nancy Drew, Franny closes her eyes and drafts a letter to Chairman Khrushchev, asking him to come to an understanding of things and not blow up America. But she can never get the wording quite right. In fact, she can’t seem to get anything quite right. She can’t duck and cover correctly during the school air raid drills, she can’t stop her eccentric uncle from digging up the front lawn to make a bomb shelter, she can’t figure out the mystery of her college freshman sister’s weeklong disappearance, and she is escalating a cold war with her former best friend Margie, with implications that will proliferate the entire neighborhood.

In Deborah Wiles’ documentary novel, the first of a planned Sixties Trilogy, the great and small dramas of Franny’s life are interwoven with a text-and-image collage of the pop singles, presidential television addresses, children’s books, and photojournalism of the historic moments of 1962. Underlying everything is the doomsday promise that was the Cuban Missile Crisis; Franny’s whole world is just one blinding flash away from total annihilation.

The mash-ups of primary source photos, historical notes, and pop culture ephemera that serve as interludes to the novel’s narrative are by turns clever, informative, ironic, and portentous, and give great context to the story. However, much like last year’s Newbery winner When You Reach Me won readers over as much with its realistic 6th grade social drama as with its time travel mystery, Franny’s day-to-day school and family concerns are just as engaging as the high concept collage aspect of the text.

And speaking of the Newbery, this book is a worthy contender for that prize in 2011. Giving a vivid picture of childhood in early 1960s, yet describing family and social situations still highly applicable to children today, this book is worth the attention of any young person or teacher of young people.

Countdown (The Sixties Trilogy, Book 1)
Written by Deborah Wiles
377 p.
ISBN: 9780545106054
Release Date: May 1, 2010

The Memory Bank

Book Review

“Hope and Honey Scroggins were the closest of sisters, had been right from the start. Truly, they were lucky to love each other so!

“Not so lucky when it came to their parents, though.

“Mr. and Mrs. Scroggins were simply awful people.”

These parents soon prove to be so awful that they make the parents of Matilda seem somewhat decent. So awful that they randomly leave Honey on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and tell Hope simply to “forget her.” Her little sister Honey was the only good thing in her life, so of course it is impossible to forget her. So, left to herself, Hope does nothing but sleep, and in her dreams she tries to find her sister.

Then one day Hope receives an unusual letter stating that her memory account is woefully out of balance, and soon she is picked up by a repo man of sorts and taken to The Memory Bank, a strange quasi-magical institution where all people’s memories, in the form of glowing physical globules, are catalogued and carefully stored. Hope has not been living and creating memories for herself, and so the head of the bank is greatly concerned. Hope is taken in by people at the bank, and hopes her access to the memory bank will help her find her sister, all while the bank takes measures against a rogue organization that is threatening to destroy memories.

Meanwhile, we learn through parallel, illustrated interludes that Honey has been adopted by a band of laughing children led by a teenage girl who perform “terrorist” activities against the memory bank, such as dumping candy into the memory receptacles with a dump truck.

Much like the illustrations in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Rob Shepperson’s drawings for Coman’s novel are as essential to the advancement of the plot as the written narrative, making this a truly collaborative work. It is one of several recent titles (along with The Dreamer) that show a growing and welcome trend towards exquisitely illustrated children’s novels.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. The illustrations are fun and generous in their frequency, making this a fast-moving but satisfying read for young readers. There is a surreal, dream-like quality to the book that is appealing, somewhere at the intersection of Roald Dahl and Kate DiCamillo. Unfortunately, like most dreams, it doesn’t seem to quite come together or make complete sense once you are finished with it. Is it an allegory that I haven’t made sense of yet? Is it a fun fantasy? Is it just a random dream? Although appealing, the book ultimately doesn’t deliver the punch that it seems it should, and I think it will leave young readers scratching their heads.

The Memory Bank
Written by Carolyn Coman, Illustrated by Rob Shepperson
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic
288 p.
ISBN: 9780545210669
Release Date: October 1, 2010