In Ellen Wittlinger’s new middle grade novel THIS MEANS WAR, Juliet Klostermeyer is a typical bike-riding, roller skating, candy-bar-eating kind of kid, navigating the changes that always come with growing up. Her parents argue, her older sister keeps kicking her out of their shared bedroom to listen to music and talk about boys with her friend, and Juliet’s best guy friend is hanging out with new neighborhood boys instead of her. Typical kid stuff.
But the year is 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis is looming large over Juliet’s Air Force base town, and she is afraid. In a voice that is equal parts funny and poignant, Wittlinger captured that feeling perfectly in passages like this one, when Juliet reacts to a news bulletin and speech from President Kennedy on TV:
Juliet had her legs tucked underneath her and her arms wrapped around her chest; she hadn’t moved through the whole speech. "I wanted to watch Mister Ed with Mom," she said, and then the tears began to trickle down her cheeks. It suddenly seemed as if President Kennedy and the Russians and the newscasters had all stolen something precious from her that she could never get back.
And this one…just a few pages later, when Juliet looks to her teacher for reassurance:
Juliet tried to look deep into Mrs. Funkhauser’s eyes to see if she was telling the truth about not being worried. But it was hard to tell with teachers. They all looked like they had varnish on their faces — it was hard to see if there were any cracks underneath the shine.
(As a teacher, I particularly love that line!)
A contest between the boys and girls of the neighborhood serves as a great way to lighten the feeling of menace for a while, but even that challenge, which starts with things like running races and roller skating, escalates. It ends up serving as a great allegory for the kind of one-upsmanship that punctuates international relations in this period of history.
Overall, THIS MEANS WAR is a funny and wonderful book that will really give middle grade readers a sense for what it was like to be a kid in October of 1962. Highly recommended, and it would make a terrific class read-aloud. (Recommendation based on a review copy sent to me by Simon & Schuster)
Now I need to read Deb Wiles’ book COUNTDOWN, also about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I’ve heard is terrific as well. Sounds like these two would be great paired together with some nonfiction about this period in history!