The only thing more difficult than explaining development of the atomic bomb is explaining it to children. Jonah Winter and his mother, Jeanette Winter succeed brilliantly on this score in their new picture book, The Secret Project.
Reading a book to a classroom of fourth graders is the acid test for a serious work. When I read The Secret Project in just that setting, you could have heard a pin drop.
Jonah Winter juxtaposes the cloistered, deadly industry of the most brilliant scientists of their time, against the timeless serenity of the wide-open New Mexico desert, replete with Hopi Indians and plein air artists like Georgia O’Keefe. His straightforward prose is pointed and seems effortless, again contrasting with the high-stakes race that consumed the Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos.
The coup de grace is the deceptively simple artwork by Jeanette Winter. Four pages show the mushrooming of the first test detonation in high contrast, followed by two facing pages of solid black. Alluding again to my fourth-grade audience, there was an absolute hush during the viewing of this sequence.
The book’s afterword is sobering. Adults and children alike apprehend the gravity of the issue through the author’s capsulation of such facts as “the explosion was 10,000 times as hot as the sun,” or that three weeks after the Trinity test, America’s use of the weapons resulted in between 164,000 and 214,000 deaths, “most of the civilians, many of them children.”
Be prepared to spend time with your youngsters during and after the reading of this book. Undeniably, the reality of the arms race casts a pall over their world. As was true for the Hopi, the plein-air artists and the rest of the 1940s world, perhaps it was not such a bad thing to be shielded from existence of the devil’s workshop.
An excellent primer for reading The Secret Project is The Butter Battle Book. Dr. Seuss’ 1984 work masquerades as absurd, but shrewdly mimics the endless escalation, the reliance on brilliant scientists and the synchronicity of terrifying advancements by enemy camps.
A strong and thrilling follow-up to The Secret Project is BOMB by Steven Sheinkin. This 266-page, plot-driven chapter book focuses on the furtive efforts at Los Alamos, against the backdrop of Germany’s efforts to develop the weapon first. First published in 2012, BOMB was a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor book and a Sibert Award winner.