Discussion Guide for THIS MEANS WAR!
by Ellen Wittlinger
About the book: Juliet’s old friend Lowell has suddenly decided that he shouldn’t hang around with girls anymore and has made friends with the Lambert boys who’ve just moved to town. In fact, lots of new kids are moving to town because the nearby Air Force base seems to be gearing up for a war. Another of the new kids is Patsy—a little bit wild, but lots of fun—who becomes Juliet’s new friend. Before long the boys and girls are challenging each other to see who’s the fastest, the strongest, the bravest, the best. And then President Kennedy announces to the nation that the Russians are building missile bases in Cuba which could launch bombs that would reach the entire United States. It looks as if a real war is about to begin, one that could destroy everything.
About the author: Ellen Wittlinger is the critically acclaimed author of the teen novels Lombardo’s Law, Sandpiper, Heart on My Sleeve, Zigzag, The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Razzle, What’s In a Name, Blind Faith, Love & Lies and Hard Love (an ALA Michael L. Printz Honor Book and a Lambda Literary Award winner), and the middle grade novel Gracie’s Girl. She has a bachelor’s degree from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. A former children’s librarian she lives with her husband in Haydenville, Massachusetts.
Author statement: I was fourteen years old in 1962 and was quite frightened by the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I have never forgotten what it was like to sit around the television with my parents and listen to statesmen and news anchors discussing the likelihood of an all-out war with Russia that might begin at any moment. It seemed to me as if the world might really end in a matter of days. Like Caroline, I feared I would never grow up, get married, have children and a normal life. The immediate danger passed, but I never forgot what it was like to imagine it. 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.
- Lowell says, “Girls have to play with girls and boys have to play with boys? Is that true? Can boys and girls be friends? Are there some sports only boys do well? Some only girls can do?
- How has life changed since 1962? What are the large and small differences between Juliet’s life and yours?
- Bruce challenges the others to shoplift which most of them don’t want to do, but they’re afraid to say no. Have you ever been in a situation where there was that kind of peer pressure? How did you handle it?
- What was Juliet praying for? What event initially sparked her prayers?
- Why do you think Patsy was so bold and braggy? What do you think of Patsy when you first meet her? Does your opinion change over the course of the book?
- The first women ordered to combat zones began to appear in the late 1960s in Vietnam. The first women cadets graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1980. Do you think women should be sent to fight in wars? Why or why not?
- What did Juliet like about her job of straightening out the soda bottles in the dog pen? What does it tell you about who she is?
- Why were Juliet, Annette and Linda willing to do the tests? Why did the boys let Bruce boss them around?
- Why do Juliet’s parents argue so much? Are they really mad at each other or at something else? Juliet asks God to figure out a way for everybody to have enough money—do you think she’s right that that would solve a lot of the world’s problems?
- When Bruce wants to insult Lowell he calls him a girl. Why is this also insulting to the girls?
- Was the dancing challenge a good idea? Why? Is dancing well as difficult as playing a sport?
- Do you think Lowell remembered that Juliet had played with Boneguard when he was a puppy? If so, why didn’t he tell the other boys that she would have an advantage in that challenge?
- Which of the challenges would have been the hardest for you and why?
- First Patsy tells Juliet she doesn’t want to go into Boneguard’s yard because she’s been bitten twice by dogs, but later she tells Bruce that she can’t do it because she’s allergic to dog bites. Do you think either of these things is true? If not, why does Patsy feel she has to lie?
- Why does Juliet cry at having missed seeing “Mister Ed” on TV? What is she really crying about?
- Why does Juliet panic when the boys close the hatch on the bomb shelter?
- Was Caroline being overly dramatic to say that she and Juliet might not get to grow up and get married like their parents had?
- Why does Juliet begin to question the existence of God?
- Patsy doesn’t treat her little brother David very nicely—why do you think that is?
- Why did you think of Juliet’s reaction to going into the Kroger store? Why does she wish she could shop there?
- Even though Juliet’s mother works in the store all day with her husband, she is still the one responsible for cooking all the meals and doing all the household chores. Is this fair? Do you think it’s more likely for men and women to share such household tasks today than it was in 1962?
- Why do you think Patsy feels like she has to be better at everything than anyone else? Have you ever lied about your ability to do something?
- Patsy wants desperately to win the “war,” but is there also another reason she won’t leave the burning barn? Who was she proving something to?
- Juliet says bravery is always part stupidity and it really just means, “I have no choice.” Is this true? Have you ever wanted to be a hero? Have you ever known anyone you thought was heroic?
- In what ways was the war between the boys and the girls similar to a real war?
Language arts: 1) Write a short story or a play that takes place in a bomb shelter. 2) Write an essay on “What it means to be a hero.”
History: 1) Write a short biography of Nikita Khrushchev and explain the part he played in the Cold War in the 1960s. 2) Look for photos or descriptions of fallout shelters. What is fallout? Would these shelters really have saved lives if nuclear bombs had fallen?
Music: Listen to some music from the early 1960s. Learn how to do the Twist.
Art: Draw a picture of a bomb shelter. What would be the most important things you might want to have there with you?