CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 6 . . . . November 10, 2006
At noon, the seven-hour countdown is on, and to while away the time, Hugo James Macfie gathers his resources and lets his imagination run wild. If he wants a gerbil, he has to prove to his father that he can spend the day alone, “caged” in his empty and freshly-painted room. That’s the time his gerbil would be confined “in a boring old cage” all by itself, “with nothing to do” while Hugo is at school.
As part of the deal, Hugo is allowed to have a plate of food (he chooses an orange, a sandwich, and three chocolate cookies), a bottle of water, three of his old toys (a dancing monkey on a stick, Gray Ghostie, his favourite puppet, and a box of baby blocks) which he borrows from Charlotte, his younger sister, and all the newspaper that is spread over the floor. By 12:31 pm, he’s bored with the toys; by 12:39 he’s fed up with trying to read the paint-splattered Financial Times newspaper which contains “nothing worth reading,” and by 12:59 pm he has eaten his sandwich and one cookie. Less than an hour has gone by and already it seems to Hugo as if weeks have passed.
He fantasizes about being adrift at sea and being chased by a shark; he plans different escape routes out of his window; he pretends he’s in Spain lying underneath an orange tree and lounging beside a swimming pool whose crystal water entices him to be “free as a fish”; and finally he visualizes that he’s an eagle “wheeling up into high skies. Flap, flap! Free as a bird.” Then, in desperation, he rips out words from the newspaper headlines to make a distress note – “HELP Me I Am traPPED” and rolls his message up and pushes it into his empty water bottle.
At 1:59 pm, he argues with his brain about manners; they reach a truce by 2:09 pm. At 2:13 pm, he sings to the bare lightbulb that hangs from the matte white ceiling “at the top of his voice” Flower of Scotland, When My Sugar Walked Down the Street (his father’s favourite), the theme song from The Flintstones, and the first verse of his Grandma’s favourite hymn, The Head that Once Was Crowned with Thorns. By 2:41 pm he’s ready to call it quits, and at 2:49 pm Hugo James Macfie goes “down the stairs and out of the front door, into the wind and sun.”
Countdown, by British author Anne Fine (Children’s Laureate 2001-2003, Order of the British Empire 2003, Carnegie Medalist 1989, 1992, and Whitbred Book Award winner 1993, 1996) certainly does not stand up to the literary and prize-winning quality of her other books such as The Tulip Touch, Flour Babies, Goggle Eyes, Diary of a Killer Cat, Up on Cloud Nine, The Jamie and Angus Stories and Madame Doubtfire which have earned her the reputation as one of the most popular and successful children’s writers in Britain. A weak plot that goes nowhere, poor characterization that lacks intimacy, depth, and growth, a questionable theme with regard to its intended message for its young readers, and Tony Trimmer’s full-colour, cartoon-style illustrations that are garish and aesthetically disappointing, best sum up this chapter book.
The story’s setting is universal. No town or city is named but mention of the Financial Times newspaper and the fact that the author is British would hint of a British location. The plot unfolds or rather drags on in Hugo’s bare room which he and his dad have just painted. Nothing exciting happens to Hugo. He plays with his toys, eats his lunch, hallucinates (probably from the paint fumes), sings, gets bored, and then packs it in. There is no climax, no positive outcome for Hugo, and no point to the story.
Hugo’s dad (and author Fine) actually set him up for failure. It is a one-sided deal based on the Dad’s terms even though Hugo agrees to the place, the time, and what he can have with him during his “incarceration.” While his dad says that he does not doubt that Hugo would take care of a gerbil “properly,” his concern is what he considers to be the unfair caging of an animal and that seems to be his reason for saying “no” to Hugo. This scenario could undoubtedly give rise to some very interesting classroom discussion.
Hugo, the protagonist, is portrayed as a shallow, one-dimensional character with a short attention span and a vivid imagination. From the text, the reader learns nothing about him – how old he is, his interests, his likes and dislikes, what matters to him aside from wanting a gerbil, his feelings and even what he looks like. The reader must rely on Trimmer`s drawings that depict him as a weird- and creepy looking kid with bulging eyes and big white teeth. In many of the illustrations, Hugo seems to be portrayed as a preschooler and not the assumed seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old boy he is supposed to be.
Basically, Hugo`s character is flat, and, as such, no reader rapport can be developed with him. He definitely is not a hero figure because, without the fortitude to overcome his dad`s challenge, he easily fails the “test” to stay in his room for seven hours. By quitting and giving in to boredom after less than three hours in his room, not only does Hugo throw away his chance of getting a gerbil, he allows his dad to prove his point that he cannot “stick it out.” Ultimately, Hugo will disappoint those readers who have ever wanted a gerbil for a pet, and he will let down those readers who are willing to “hang in” with him until he achieves the success that never happens.
One wonders what Hugo learned from his experience and what message Fine is sending to children. Hugo discovers boredom but does not come to terms with it. And, he decides that, if something doesn’t make you happy, move on. Who knows, had he succeeded, Hugo may have grown unhappy and bored with his gerbil. Does Hugo, a human, learn how a caged animal feels? Does he really care? As he watches the numbers “flash and change” on his watch, his only comparison between his situation and a gerbil’s is that “a gerbil wouldn’t have a watch, of course, to countdown the minutes. All that a gerbil could do was prowl around his nice new cage.”
There is an inaccuracy on the book’s cover which only becomes obvious after the book is read. A bored-looking Hugo sits cross-legged with a huge clock ticking behind him. The hands show the time as 4:09 pm. However Hugo did not last that long in his room. He was long gone by 2:49 pm. Also on the cover, the title of the book is confusing. The author’s name in red is bigger than Countdown and gives the impression that the book is called Anne Fine Countdown.
On the positive side, Countdown’s forty-eight pages and fourteen chapters are well-written in a conversational style that makes it both a good read-aloud and read-alone book. Fine’s short sentences set the tone and pulse of the story and succeed in conveying the second-by-second passing of time that preoccupies a clock-watching Hugo. Intended for younger, newly fluent readers ages 8-10, with a reading level of Grades 3-4 (ages 7-9 in Grades 2-4 would seem more realistic), this reissue of Countdown which was first published in Britain in 1996, is part of Crabtree Publishing’s “Yellow Bananas” series.
However, all in all, Countdown’s appeal is doubtful and the only recommendation from this reviewer is that it should be counted down and OUT!
Lois Brymer is a former publicist and recent graduate of the University of British Columbia's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.