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'Fallout' by Todd Strasser: Brilliantly scary

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Fallout by Todd Strasser

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"Fallout" by Todd Strasser is a story that grabs the reader by the collar on the first page and doesn't loosen that iron grip until the end. What does that mean for the reader? "Fallout" is a book that takes over your mind -- you won't be able to think about anything else until you finish the book. And you will do that quickly.

Although the book is a middle grade book aimed at fifth graders and middle school kids, those adults who grew up knowing about bomb shelters (my father built one off of our garage), will find it fascinating.

The premise is that during the Kennedy administration, the Russians actually bomb the USA. The story is of a fifth grader, Scott, whose father had built a bomb shelter, thereby suffering the ridicule of his wife and neighbors. But of course, when the bomb falls, all those sniggering neighbors want to take shelter with Scott's family.

How many get in is part of the problem and thus part of the story. The story alternates between Scott telling what is happening in the shelter with the ten people, and the back-story. The back-story is what has been happening in the months leading up to the dropping of the bomb. So in alternating chapters the reader learns about Scott and his friends and their families, about their nanny Janet and her family, and about world politics at that time and about bigotry -- not only relating to race but also to nationality.

One example of Strasser's ability to include small details that all add up to a larger reality is the inclusion of a scene where Scott sees that the black workmen digging the hole for the bomb shelter, during an extremely hot summer day, have run out of water to drink. He asks his mother if he can take them something to drink and she provides iced tea. Strasser shows the reader the surprise on the faces of the workers. This becomes important when Scott and his family are forced to deal with the bigotry of a neighbor in the shelter.

Strasser is a genius when it comes to spreading out information and then having it all come together. Important information and details are carefully doled out throughout the whole book. From the beginning, the reader learns about the people in the shelter with Scott and his parents and brother, but the reader doesn't really learn who they are until later in the book. But it all works like a 1,000-piece puzzle. At the end, the pieces from different corners all fit together.

There is a reason that Strasser has won so many awards for his writing, and this book is a perfect example of why. He makes it all seem so effortless -- the smallest details, the placement of scenes, the dialogue, and the combination of all of that makes reading this book a memorable experience. It's not only thoughtful but thought-provoking.

Strasser has a website filled with discussion and historical material for teachers to use with the book. Teachers and parents should be aware that much is made of Playboy magazine and trying to look at girls' breasts. While that is not inappropriate for fifth grade readers, some might not think it appropriate for younger readers.

School Library Journal called "Fallout" a "must-read middle school book," and it was named "Best Fiction for Young Adults" and a "Quick Pick for Reluctant readers" by YALSA (the Young Adult arm of the American Library Association).

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Candlewick Press for review purposes.

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