“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This Means War! • Historical fiction

Just out! April 20, 2010    Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers   Ages 10 - 14
From an award-winning author, a powerful coming-of-age story that brings a tumultuous time in American history vividly to life.
Story:  It's the end of summer October 1962.  Julie Klostermeyer's world is turning upside down.  All she hears from her parents and teachers and on the news is the Russian threat and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And things aren't much better at home.  Her best friend doesn't seem interested in being her friend anymore -- he'd rather hang out with the new boys instead.  When Patsy moves in, things are looking up.  Patsy is fearless, and she challenges the neighborhood boys to see who's better, strong, faster:  a war between the boys and the girls.
All this talk of war makes Juliet uneasy.  As the challenges become more and more dangerous, Juliet has to decide what she stands for -- and what's worth fighting for.
Story behind the story:  Best to hear it straight from the source, so I give you Printz Honor (for Hard Love) award-winning author (and former librarian!) Ellen Wittlinger:
"Juliet lives in a small town in a house attached to the grocery store her parents own. Just like I did. I was fourteen in 1962 when President Kennedy went on television one October evening to announce that the United States was on the brink of nuclear war. For a week we were terrified, listening for approaching bombers, crawling under desks at school, wondering if those families with bomb shelters would live while the rest of us died.
In This Means War! The Cuban Missile Crisis is the background for a smaller neighborhood war--one between the boys and the girls to prove which group is stronger, faster, braver. As with the larger crisis, the neighborhood tests soon get out of hand, progressing from foot races and Twist contests to dangerous challenges.  Where is the line between bravery and foolishness? What does it mean to be a hero?
By broaching the topic in a work of fiction, I hope to help children understand that, although they may not have power over world events, they do have the power to change their own lives."


"Wittlinger latches on to a poignant metaphor in this lively and readable tale...a clever concept that keeps the proceedings fun even as the darker drama of potential world collapse provides a weighty element... A warm way to introduce the cold war." -- Booklist

"Wittlinger raises many complex gender questions without being heavy-handed...The book's backdrop -- an Air Force town during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- ratchets up the anxiety and clearly places the children in a critical moment between childhood and the adult world." -- Publishers Weekly

Be sure to take a peek at the discussion guide -- in addition to a summary, author note and discussion questions, it includes project suggestions for language arts, history, music and art.

FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent; please check back on the "comments" link to read what your colleagues have to say.


Kara Schaff Dean said...

In Ellen Wittlinger's gripping middle school novel, 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 troubling signs 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 childrens 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.

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.

Anonymous said...

"This Means War!" is a fantastic read for middle school students. I look forward to using this in my 6th grade reading class next year. Ellen Wittlinger has taken the time to include a discussion guide and activities to go along with the story. This story may be historical fiction for the students, but not for their teacher. I look forward to going beyond the book into the history behind the story. I give this book a 5 in my picnic basket. I hope others will feel the same.

Aubrey Heusser - Logos Academy said...

This was a good one - I can't wait until we get to this historical period next year so I can use this. It's well written, with tons of great imagery from the very beginning, and the characters are very realistic. The world events and cultural references are woven into the personal story without seeming forced, and give a good feel for 1962.

The level of complexity is perfect for the target age group, and the message is of actions having consequences (both in the neighborhood story and globally) and of dealing with peer pressure.

I don't really like the stereotypes of siblings hating each other or of kids vs. adults, but both of these were resolved in this story so that the families were improved. I also could have done without the boyfriend/girlfriend aspect, especially since the characters are supposed to be ten years old, but it's not pervasive, or graphic in any way.

I rate this book 4.5 - probably not going to become a childhood classic, but very well done and will be great for history classes.

Anonymous said...

At first I was apprehensive that my students wouldn't understand the background of this book, since it takes place during the time of the Cuban missle crisis. However, as I continued to read, I thought what a marvelous find. Students will be able to talk to eyewitnesses of the time-their grandparents and get a viewpoint of what was going through their minds when they were the age of the reader-and the characters in the book.

It is exceptionally well written, covering concepts and feelings that transcend time.

PLLoggerR said...

This Means War, by Ellen Wittlinger, presents a fictional contrast and comparison between the typical battles tweens have between themselves and the Cuban Missile crisis. While two groups of children (one boys, one girls) challenge each other to ever increasingly dangerous, not to be lost, battles, we also hear radio broadcasts and family discussions of the battle between two countries. The children are struggling to show superiority, much as countries do, with posturing, strong statements, bluffs, and counter bluffs. In the end, the war is averted, friendships are changed and grow stonger, and the crisis is over. A good book for discussion of conflict, friendships, family, and the 60's! A 4.5 for my picnic.

dmuldawer said...

Well worth having in classroom libraries, Ellen Wittlinger's THIS MEANS WAR explores conflict on many different levels. Though the setting takes place in 1962, the issues are still relevant today. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," is truly applicable here.

The primary conflict is a competition between four local boys and girls, who are trying to prove the superiority of their sex through physical challenges. But war as used here is applicable to so much more than this competition. In many ways, this is an ideal book for teaching students about the different types of antagonists.

1. Person vs. Society--Bruce Wagner, a local delinquent, and Patsy, a tomboy, are trying to find ways to fit into a 1962 world, no matter what the cost.

2. Person vs. Person---The boys compete against the girls. The United States competes against Russia. The small supermarket owner competes against megamarts.

3. Person vs. Self--Juliet struggles to figure out who she is and how to cope with the loss of her best friend and her awkwardness in not being a child but not being as developmentally advanced as her female friends either. She also struggles with different issues of loyalty, to friends and to her family.

In THIS MEANS WAR, characters are realistic and well-developed. The ending is especially striking as differences dissolve to prevail through a crisis.

In the end, the reader is left with a sense that humanity is humanity and there are no true antagonists, just people doing the best they can in an uncertain world.

THIS MEANS WAR is an excellent book and one well worth reading. With timeless themes, this book should resonate with today's students.

Picnic Basket Rating: 5

Catherine Yezak said...

This story really hit home for me. I live in an area where daily life is a struggle for most people. I work with kids who come to school frequently worried if their parents are going to have a job or if someone they know is going to be sent to Afghanistan.

The kids feel like their life is out of control, rather like how Juliet and her friends feel. They want someone to pay attention to them and help them to understand what is going on in the world around them. It finally takes Bruce burning down a barn and Juliet,Lowell, and Patsy nearly loosing their lives to finally get the adults to listen to them.

My kids do this daily, though not on such a large scale. Usually it is through arguments over silly things. But all they want is for someone to listen to them. To understand that they hurt and want someone to help them to stop the hurt.

This is a good story to use with struggling readers and a way to join both boys and girls into enjoying a good story.

I rate this a 5.

Catherine Yezak, Special Education Teacher, Marquette, Michigan

EShay said...

I could not put This Means War down. It held my attention throughout and I found the historical aspects very appealing. As I did not live through that era I am not sure exactly what it was like, but the events seemed accurate compared to what I remember hearing about.
I found the "war" between the boys and girls to be very age appropriate.
The jokes were just as bad as I remember them being.
I enjoyed the book immensely, but I am not sure it will be a must read for everyone.
I give it a 4.5.

Margie said...

It was the end of the school year when I received this book so I asked one of my better 6th grade readers to read it and write a review.

She said, "I would recommend this book (This Means War) to anyone who enjoys exciting, fast-paced stores that they can probably relate to themselves."

From her review, I am almost certain that although the backdrop is the Cuban Missile Crisis, it could be interchanged with any period in which we are engaged in war, including the current conflict with the middle east.

Margie said...

From a 6th grader: "I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys exciting, fast-paced stories that they can probably relate to themselves."

She relayed that although the backdrop of the stories is during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she was able to connect to many of the concerns kids have during our current involvement in the middle east.

Pamela Kramer said...

I must say that I did not find this a riveting book as did many of the other reviewers. I did enjoy it, but I also felt quite able to put it down and return to it a few days later.

That being said, I do think that many fifth and sixth graders would enjoy this book. I also think it would be a good companion book to The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt. That book is written about approximately the same time period, and it would be interesting to have students compare the two books.

I give this a 4 out of 5.

Anonymous said...

Though this was an interesting read and one that covers a period of history not often addressed in kids' books, "This Means War" was just an okay read to me since I could not really get into it until the very end. I give it a PB rating of 3. The most notable part for me was the dynamic among the children and excellent examples of peer pressure and "group think."

--MT, Children's Librarian, Public Library

Anonymous said...

I just finished this novel and loved it! I love reading about this time period and Wittlinger makes it feel so real. This book is very well written. Those who teach middle school history would be crazy not to use this in their class!!

Anonymous said...

Having grown up during the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I could identify with some of the fears and uncertainties of the characters in the book. It was also interesting to read and be reminded of the limitations put on girls in this country not so long ago. All of it made a good background for the conflict between the friends. The way that the larger tensions of the times impacted their day-to-day relationships was well done. My only concern is that readers who don't remember those times may not be able to take in the magnitude of the pressures that were placed on the characters. Nonetheless, it is definitely a book that I would pick for our library shelves. I give it a 4.

Laura _SPED Teacher said...

Does anyone know the reading level on this book, as I'm interestedin adding it to my classroom library!

Mrs. Horne said...

Heavy, heavy content - that's for sure. Great book that really connects students to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can more see myself using excerpts from this book to teach comprehension strategies than using it as a whole text.

Although, for a history class it might be a great supplement when studying conflicts of the 20th century.

Rating: 5

Anonymous said...

I've got to start off by stating I'm not a fan of historical fiction, nor of books that deal with greater conflicts like war, famine, etc., but within three chapters of This Means War, I was hooked.

The background of the Cuban Missile Crisis played a much smaller role than I had expected. The focus truly was on Juliet - her feelings of loss (of a best friend & of her grandfather), her desire to make a new friend, to prove her worth in a changing world (the 1960's were the epicenter of cultural change), to understand the difference between bravery and doing something not so smart that seems brave.

This Means War! rates a 4 on the Picnic Basket scale. I see it doing fairly well with female readers but doubt boys will pick it up. This is definitely a book worthy of booktalking in schools.

ahslibrarian said...

The threat of war often evokes a wide range of emotions, but fear is always at the top of the list for children as well as adults. Perhaps it is the uncertainty that causes fear more than the actual circumstances? Ellen Wittlinger provides a thorough examination of the topic during October 1962 when the threat of war was imminent.

This Means War tells the story through a group of children whose conflict between boy and girls challenged their own alliances and allowed them to see how the resolve of individuals could push each side toward an outcome that was dangerous for everyone.

Although Wittlinger’s intended audience is aged 10-14 years, there is a sense of universal appeal in both her characters and the historical era. The notion that people are constantly at war with one another and themselves over trivial matters is played out in multiple scenarios. Many of the characters maintain the innocence that was part of the collective conscience of the early 1960s despite the undercurrents of change that was in the air.

Teachers and students should find ample background to capture what it was like to come home from civil defense drills and ponder the question of what they might take to their own bomb shelter, if they were lucky enough to have one. Similarly, older students will be able to make connections between the Kennedy-Khrushchev posturing and that of the battle between the boys and girls. Then, and now, one decision can change everything,

The book does take a while to get things rolling to the point where all the characters are sufficiently developed to achieve the outcome Wittlinger desires for her story. The younger readers may find this too much to wade through without encouragement. While older readers may not need the cultural background and story development, it could easily be aided by reading aloud as a class or in small groups. The importance and relative age of the event also lends itself to many opportunities such as oral history interviews and scores of available news footage and popular culture artifacts. The opportunities for extended use in the classroom are without limit.

Purchase This Means War for the classroom and library in the upper elementary and middle school with confidence that it will circulate. Be prepared for requests that ask for more from the time period. School librarians may want to create and circulate a pathfinder of the Cuban Missile Crisis to accompany the arrival of the book, or to mark the event during the month of October.

4 of 5

John Parker
Media Coordinator
Andrews High School
50 HS Drive
Andrews, NC 28901


Barbara said...

I enjoyed Ellen Wittlinger's unfolding of the parallel "crises" of boys vs girls and US vs Russia/Cuba. The characters seemed very believable for 1962 and yet still fresh for today. Along with the historical context of the Kennedy decisions, the pushes and pulls of family, friendship and loyalty are all themes easily expanded on.

Rating: 4.5/5

MRoseberry of Idaho said...

Being a Middle School Social Studies teacher I really enjoyed this book. I am looking forward to sharing this book with those students that get into reading historical fictions. The book was well written and encouraged me to continue to constantly read until the very end. I would give this book a 4.8 out of 5. Thanks

Lemon the Duck said...

The battle of the sexes---a current theme in an historical setting. But that's just part of the story. The main character, Juliet, must find her own way as deals with friendships, family, and the larger world around her.
This is a great historical story and one the target audience can relate. The humor, pacing, and tension are just right. It is a great addition to any middle grade library. I rate this book a 5 out of 5.
Laura Backman
Hathaway School

M. Battista said...

I enjoyed this book. I love historical fiction and it was great to see the war theme utilized in different ways. I didn't enjoy this book as much as other Wittlinger books that I have read in the past. I wish the cover was more appealing to students. I will have a hard time getting kids to check this out. It already looks old fashioned and dated. Just because it's setting is in the past doesn't mean the cover should be boring. I know students will enjoy it once they start reading it, but getting them to begin will be a challenge.

Picnic Rating: 3.5

M. Battista
Denair, CA