02 February 2010

Anticipated Arcs: This Means War! by Ellen Wittlinger

In Ellen Wittlinger's upcoming middle school novel (due for release in April, 2010,) the subject of "boys against the girls" is played out in front of a dramatic historical backdrop. With the United States and Cuba locked in a nuclear stare-down, 4 girls and 4 boys in Wisdom Hill, a Southern Air Force town bearing the eerie markings of a military build-up, challenge each other to a series of "tests" to prove, once and for all, who is the best--boys or girls. Children's literature is no stranger to the battle of the sexes: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's multi-volume "Boys against Girls" series is full of fun and pranks, and Andrew Clements' No Talking elevates a stubborn battle of wills into a constructive social exercise. In This Means War! however, there is no doubt that the stakes in this battle are high, as the children's game becomes complicated by a maelstrom of pre-teen disorientation, confused loyalties, and the escalating anxiety concerning the Cuban missile crisis.

There were times when this was a stressful book to read. I know how the Cuban Missile Crisis was eventually resolved, so the stress did not originate from the historical context of the book. Instead, the activity of the children, seen through the eyes of protagonist Juliet Klostermeyer, is fraught with peril. Each team is goaded on by a leader who simply cannot be seen to be weak or less than the best: Bruce Wagner is a juvenile delinquent in the making who is reduced to hanging out with children much younger than himself because he has been forced to repeat grades in school. He is a loud-mouthed bully that the younger boys don't know how to rid themselves of, despite the fact that he upsets and scares them. Patsy Osborne is a bold and confident girl whose fiercely competitive streak is antagonized by contemporary attitudes about girls. Bruce is the obvious villain, but Patsy is the danger you suddenly realize has been present all along and is consequently harder to contain.

This is a thought-provoking book about the fears of children, and the lengths to which they will go to face, combat, or mask those fears. If Juliet were not already distressed about a domestic situation in which her mother is too busy to spend time with her, her father's business is threatened by larger competition, her older sister thinks she is a nuisance, and her best friend (who happens to be a boy) is suddenly ignoring her,  the news about the missle crisis might have remained just that--news. But as Juliet sees chinks in her localized support system, there is space for larger concerns to creep in and threaten her. One of the most touching moments in the book is when Juliet cries because Mr. Ed has been preempted by the news about the missile crisis. Having been gifted a rare chance to sit and watch TV with her mother, the loss of that opportunity is indicative to her of an unsafe world that can reach her at any moment.

Just as the Cuban Missile Crisis dictates the fear factor in this story, so does its end project a sense a optimism on the book's finale. After an intense week that has seen both the larger and the local world teeter on the brink of disaster, Juliet and her friends are afforded respite, redemption and the luxury to reflect on their experience. The war, as it were, is over, and it is time to start the reconstruction. This is a book which will resonate with its core audience--preteens living in an uncertain world, where the meanings of bravery, fear, and loyalty are questioned everyday.

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