Writing history for kids used to be a simple affair. I remember from my own youth the deadly dull books that somehow seemed to always cover the same subjects over and over again. You’d have the major wars. The occasional biography of one of the ten usual subjects for kids (Earhart, Edison, King, etc.). Maybe, if you were lucky, you’d find a book on how people lived in the olden days but that was as far as you’d get. Complex subject matter and topics were just that. Complex. Few people felt inclined to explain things like Japanese internment camps or the Trail of Tears or any other number of American atrocities to children. There is a school of thought that believes that kids aren’t ready for opposing viewpoints or multifaceted readings of events from the past. What’s good is good, what’s bad is bad, and the gray middle ground is left for middle and high school. It’s not like that today. Today there’s an interest in producing picture books that speak to historical moments that aren’t as neat and tidy as, say, breaking off from Mother England. And I think it’s fairly safe to say that until this moment in time nobody ever took a serious stab at writing a picture book about the birth of the atom bomb. Doesn’t matter if you’re pro. Doesn’t matter if you’re con. Here is a moment that happened in history. Your kids deserve to know about it. We owe them that much.
It was a boy’s school at the start. Until, that is, it wasn’t. The principal got a note from the government and the boys all cleared out. They were replaced by scientists. Scientists assigned to a secret location, aided by workers and guards who had no idea what was going on. The scientists themselves were working on something called a “Gadget”. They were thinking about atoms and metals with names like “uranium” and “plutonium”. And then, one day, they were finished. They drove into the desert to test it. Set it off. And saw the mushroom cloud and the colors and, finally, nothing at all.
Winter’s writing is pared down here to its essential core. He’s judicious with his word use. Gone is the loquaciousness you might find in books like Founding Fathers! or The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan. The very first lines in this book read, “In the beginning, there was just a peaceful desert mountain landscape.” We’re in Biblical country here, people, and the fall of man is just a scant 36 pages away. The facts are laid bare for one and all to see, but it’s the way the author presents them that sticks with the reader. Listen to these lines:
“What they are trying to invent is so secret, they cannot even call it by its real name.”
“These great scientists must complete their secret invention before any other scientists complete their secret invention.”
“. . . it is hardly even imaginable.”
In some of his books Mr. Winter has an inclination to speculate. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s kept in check. The scientists “emerge from the shadows, pale and tired and hollow-eyed…” Later, “The great scientists gather around their creation in silence, wondering if it will work.” But these leaps are logical ones. Entirely presumable and understandable. He hasn’t filled in fake dialogue here or said anything that couldn’t be inherently understood. It is the job of the nonfiction picture book writer to stick to the facts and yet also make their books potentially interesting to four to seven-year-olds. Striking the right balance is an art, and in this book Mr. Winter makes it clear that he’s taken everything he’s learned over the years and applied it.
Some of the choices Mr. Winter makes with the text linger. He takes time to leave Los Alamos behind, from time to time. He visits the people living in the region, with special attention paid to the artists. He makes a point to shine a spotlight on the hired workers who were brought in “to cook, to clean, to guard.” We see a Hopi artist carving wood and a white painter who bears a striking similarity to Georgia O’Keefe. All this is to make clear to the reader that what happened at Los Alamos didn’t occur in a vacuum. That there was life outside the gadget. Life that would be considerably altered by what the scientists were doing. When you read the Author’s Note you find that Mr. Winter is not chintzy with the details on the destruction caused by the “gadget”. He lists the number of years it will take before the site of the first atom bomb testing grounds will be free of radioactivity (24,100 years). He mentions the fact that the U.S. is only now studying the cancerous effects on the populace of New Mexico from this test. He talks about the number of Japanese civilians, “many of them children” who died of the bomb’s effects in World War II (between 164,000 and 214,000). He mentions the reasons for the bomb, and the fact that the U.S. was racing Germany to create it. He mentions that in the text too, for that matter. But the end of the Author’s Note is clear. “… as of 2016, there are 15,700 nuclear weapons still in existence throughout the world. Hopefully some day that number will be zero.” And when you read that, the inclusion of the people living just outside of Los Alamos is clear. That’s life out there. That’s living. What the scientists were hoping to create? A possible end to all of that.
It will surprise few reading this book to learn that artist Jeanette Winter created a picture book biography of Georgia O’Keefe lo these many years ago. Unsurprisingly because in many ways I feel that this is the most O’Keefe-inspired of Ms. Winter’s books. If Georgia O’Keefe had taken it upon herself to disregard the skulls and flowers and landscapes of the New Mexico region, she might well have created as artist a rendering of the mushroom cloud as beautiful as the the one found in this book. That cloud, which takes a full four pages to blossom fully before plunging you into two pages of complete and absolute darkness, may be the most controversial in the book. Can an atom bomb be beautiful? If you render it with beauty are you, by association, giving to it some kind of tacit approval? Or is it possible that something can be beautiful and horrible all at once? Neither Jonah nor Jeanette proselytizes in this book. We know his opinion of the bomb because of the Author’s Note, but the text is strictly factual. There are arguments out there to be made for the fact that good nonfiction can be interpreted any number of ways by its readers. A person who thinks nuclear weapons are the bee’s knees is going to like this book. A person who believes that they pose a threat to the environment and humanity will also come away from this title, liking it. Why? Because it sets the facts before you but reserves commentary until that final two-page spread of black.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this may be Jeanette Winter’s best book to date. In many ways her books have grown braver and more ethically complex as she’s aged. This is a woman who can write a book about Matisse’s paper cuts one moment and then highlight international injustices at home and abroad without so much as blinking an eye. Many of the illustrations in this book are works of clear beauty that are both of their time and outside of it. For example, the scientists working on the Manhattan Project are gray individuals. Even when they leave Los Alamos they’re depicted in a deep, colorless hue. Only their ideas flare into color. Atoms, protons, neutrons – all set against a deep black background. Black like those last two pages. That black is so powerful when you read it aloud to a child. You don’t look at pages of pure black without a sense of dread. Can’t be done. Imagine a teacher or a librarian reading this book aloud. Picture the silence when they simply turn the page and hold up the black. It’s not the only subtle commentary done with color, of course. Even the typography of the book changes. Before the government takes the land over, the text is written in green ink, but the moment the principal of the boys’ school gets his letter, the text is black and remains black for almost the rest of the book.
It’s not just for younger kids, in spite of its packaging. This book could be read by older readers as well, and it will be. They’ll come into their libraries asking for books on the bomb and the librarian will hand them this book. They’ll scoff at first. A baby book? But the fact that it’s supposed to be about the creation of the atom bomb will suck them in. And if they sit down to read it, they will comprehend it. They may even comprehend what it is that Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter are trying to tell them. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll walk away thinking the bomb is beautiful. The author doesn’t have ultimate control over the reader’s experience. They can guide you in the right direction, but the reader is the ultimate judge. Still, the Winters manage to stick to the facts and comment without shoving a message in your face. That alone makes the book more interesting and more powerful than all the polemics on all the Facebook feeds in the world. One of the most beautiful nonfiction picture books on a too little covered moment in American history I’ve ever seen. Chilling, in the best sense of the word.
On shelves February 7th.
Like This? Then Try:
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
- Seven Impossible Things considers the book and the history of The Bomb in children’s picture books.
- Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature takes serious issue with the use of the Hopi in this book, amongst other concerns. Full a full understanding of this book, please read her comments on the subject here.