THE SECRET PROJECT: Building the Atomic Bomb for Kids

BookendsCindy: The shadowy deeds in the 1940s New Mexico desert that culminated in “the gadget”— the world’s first atomic bomb—come hauntingly to life in Jonah and Jeanette Winter’s The Secret Project (2017). The book’s opening images of boys at play in a remote school juxtaposed with the closed, silent school that will become the headquarters of the titular secret project cast an ominous tone. Soon, top scientists go to work, racing against the clock (and other countries). The illustrations show the scientists mostly in shadow or silhouette, adding to the mood while reinforcing the secrecy and anonymity of those involved. As the book builds to its explosive ending, the text, art, and design work together to great effect. The result is a  stunning introduction to an important slice of our history by this mother-son team.

secret projectLynn: My father was a college professor, engineer, and researcher who worked on top-secret weapons during WWII. He was also a storyteller, and the story of “the gadget” is a story I grew up hearing. I remember being fascinated by the idea of this complicated secret that had involved so many people in so many different capacities. My dad would tell of close friends who suddenly disappeared, of trips to a secret lab under the University of Chicago stadium, and of the day he learned about the test. The scientific community was a smaller world then, and he remembered whispered rumors and a sense of fearful urgency. He always told the story with admiration for his contemporaries’ organizational and scientific work and sadness about its implications for the world.

The Winters’ book gave me much of the same experience as hearing my father’s stories. This is a story we need to tell, and this brilliant picture book is a perfect way to start. The skillful combination of Jeanette’s subtly unsettling illustrations and Jonah’s starkly simple text is incredibly effective. The decision to use terrifying pictures and no text at the book’s close was a stunning choice.

Read this book with middle-grade children and discuss the science and discovery of nuclear energy. It is also a perfect choice to use with older students studying the atomic age (and don’t forget to move on to Steve Sheinkin’s The Bomb). As Jonah Winter reminds us in his author’s note, “No other atomic bomb has been used to kill people since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” My generation was the first to grow up with nuclear weapons, but each generation has to make decisions about the consequences of their existence.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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