Navigating the Chilling Waters of History: A Comprehensive Exploration of “The Art of Keeping Cool” by Janet Taylor Lisle


Published in 2000, Janet Taylor Lisle’s “The Art of Keeping Cool” stands as a masterful exploration of the impact of war, family dynamics, and the resilience of the human spirit. Set against the backdrop of World War II and the U.S. home front, this novel intricately weaves together themes of patriotism, prejudice, and the transformative power of empathy. In this extensive analysis, we will embark on a literary journey through the evocative pages of “The Art of Keeping Cool,” examining its narrative complexity, thematic richness, and the author’s adept handling of historical context and human emotion.

Unraveling the Plot:

1. The Small Town of Rockport:

The novel unfolds in the fictional coastal town of Rockport, Massachusetts, during the tumultuous period of World War II. The Dickinson family, with teenage protagonist Robert as the central figure, finds their lives disrupted by the arrival of German prisoners of war at a nearby camp and the mounting tensions in their close-knit community.

2. War’s Ripple Effects:

Lisle crafts a narrative that goes beyond the battles overseas, focusing on the war’s ripple effects on the home front. As Rockport grapples with fear, suspicion, and prejudice, Robert’s coming-of-age story becomes a poignant exploration of the human cost of war on the individual and community levels.

Themes and Motifs:

1. War and Its Echoes:

“The Art of Keeping Cool” delves into the profound impact of war, not just on the battlefield but within the hearts and minds of those on the home front. The novel explores how wartime circumstances bring buried prejudices and social tensions to the surface, challenging individuals to confront their own beliefs and biases.

2. Family Dynamics:

At its core, the novel is a family drama, examining the dynamics within the Dickinson family as they navigate the challenges of wartime uncertainty. The relationships between siblings, parents, and extended family members serve as a microcosm of the broader societal shifts occurring in Rockport.

Narrative Complexity:

1. Multiple Perspectives:

Lisle employs a narrative structure that weaves together multiple perspectives, offering insights into various characters’ experiences and viewpoints. This narrative complexity enriches the storytelling, providing readers with a holistic understanding of the challenges faced by individuals in Rockport during this turbulent period.

2. Historical Authenticity:

The author demonstrates a commitment to historical authenticity, grounding the novel in the details of the World War II era. From the cultural references to the impact of war propaganda, Lisle’s meticulous research contributes to the immersive quality of the narrative.

Character Dynamics:

1. Robert Dickinson:

As the novel’s central protagonist, Robert undergoes a significant coming-of-age journey. His experiences navigating the complexities of wartime Rockport, questioning societal norms, and forming unexpected connections shape his character arc into one of resilience and self-discovery.

2. Uncle Alden:

Uncle Alden, a pacifist and artist, becomes a key figure in the novel, challenging conventional notions of patriotism and bravery. His character serves as a catalyst for Robert’s evolving understanding of morality and the true cost of war.

Reception and Impact:

1. Critical Acclaim:

“The Art of Keeping Cool” received critical acclaim for its evocative storytelling and nuanced exploration of wartime themes. The novel’s ability to capture the emotional complexities of its characters within the historical context contributed to its recognition as a notable work of young adult literature.

2. Awards and Recognition:

The novel’s impact was further underscored by its reception of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and its designation as a Newbery Honor Book. These accolades highlight the novel’s contribution to the literary landscape and its resonance with readers of various age groups.

Exploring Societal Reflections:

1. Prejudice and Xenophobia:

“The Art of Keeping Cool” reflects on the prejudices and xenophobia that often emerge during times of crisis. The arrival of German prisoners of war exposes the underlying tensions within Rockport, prompting individuals to confront their biases and reevaluate their beliefs.

2. Patriotism and Dissent:

The novel tackles the complex interplay between patriotism and dissent, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and moral courage. Characters like Uncle Alden embody the dissenting voices that challenge prevailing narratives and offer alternative perspectives on duty and loyalty.

Empathy and Resilience:

1. Empathy in Wartime:

“The Art of Keeping Cool” underscores the transformative power of empathy, portraying characters who defy societal expectations to connect with others on a human level. The novel suggests that understanding and compassion can bridge divides even in the midst of wartime fear and uncertainty.

2. Resilience in Adversity:

Rockport’s residents, faced with the challenges of war, demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity. The characters’ ability to adapt, find strength in unexpected places, and navigate the shifting dynamics of their community reflects the indomitable spirit of individuals in challenging times.


Janet Taylor Lisle’s “The Art of Keeping Cool” emerges as a poignant and insightful exploration of wartime America, delving into the intricate tapestry of human relationships, societal tensions, and the transformative power of empathy. Through the lens of the Dickinson family and the residents of Rockport, the novel captures the essence of an era marked by uncertainty and moral complexity. Lisle’s narrative complexity, historical authenticity, and thematic richness contribute to the enduring impact of the novel, making it a timeless exploration of the human condition during times of upheaval. As readers navigate the chilling waters of history alongside Robert Dickinson and his family, they are invited to reflect on the enduring lessons of resilience, empathy, and the art of keeping cool in the face of life’s most challenging moments.

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