by Steve Sheinkin
by R.J. Palacio
You would be hard-pressed to find two books with less in common: a heartfelt novel about a boy with a severe facial deformity who starts school for the first time; and a thrilling non-fiction account of the challenge, intrigue, and daring surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb.
Making the transition from the haven of home schooling to the wilds of middle school would be difficult for anyone, but for Auggie Pullman, the resilient narrator of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, it’s terrifying. Early in the story, he tells us about the way people look away from him. It’s subtle, and he tries not to let it bother him, but he notices every time. Will he ever be able to fit in and form friendships?
There are many remarkable things about Palacio’s novel. I’m not sure I’ve ever been immersed in a more accurate account of the daily life of a grade five boy, both in and out of the classroom. Palacio’s got all the details right: the politics and passions, joys and sorrows of the ten-year-old are expertly captured here. Favourite books and food and clothing. The brutal rituals of lunch seating. The heartbreak of being betrayed by a best friend.
I admired very much Palacio’s decision to split the narration between Auggie and several other characters, allowing us not only to witness Auggie’s story, but how he effects the people closest to him. His sister Olivia speaks candidly about feeling overshadowed as the sibling of a younger brother with a severe disability, and her feelings of guilt for craving a life separate from Auggie. Jack Will, the boy “assigned” to be Auggie’s friend by the principal, genuinely likes Auggie, and is shunned by his peers after punching a boy who badmouths Auggie. We also get segments from Summer, a spirited girl who’s the first to set her lunch tray down beside Auggie’s, as well as Olivia’s boyfriend, and her former best friend, Miranda, both of whom have interesting stories and revelations of their own to share.
Interestingly, no adults are given voices in the novel: not Mom or Dad or Auggie’s principal. But Palacio knows that in a kids’ world, grown ups can provide occassional back-up, but aren’t there on the front lines. A climactic scene in which Auggie’s classmates rally around him when he’s bullied by kids from another school has got to be one of the most satisfying scenes in middle grade fiction.
While Palacio doesn’t shy away from showing us the cruelty that kids are capable of, the mood of the novel is faultlessly kind-hearted, optimistic, almost utopian. My only general quibble is that Wonder’s characters are all perhaps a little too wise and noble, and exude so much emotion that I felt relatively little of my own. It’s Auggie’s simplest observation about how people look away that has stuck most with me. Awkwardness, pity and fear might make us avert our eyes — and it’s often kids who realize soonest that if you look a little longer, you’ll see beyond the disability to the person.
As a writer, I always mean to read more non fiction. When I do I’m usually richly rewarded — not just by learning fascinating new things, but by getting great ideas I can filch for future books. I like to think I’ve got a pretty good imagination, but I find that real stories almost invariably contain incidents more amazing and outlandish than the ones I could invent.
Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb is no exception. From his ample source material, Sheinkin has sculpted a gripping thriller. He takes time to set up his large cast of characters, cleverly using dialogue (from interviews) as much as possible to forward the story rather than dry exposition.
Intercutting multiple plot lines, Sheinkin tells of the story of the making of the atomic bomb with all the urgency and pacing of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. There’s the assembling of the crack team: the best scientists in the world rounded up and eventually shipped out to Los Alamos. There’s the initial tests and failures. There are spies trying to steal their research, some of them US scientists on the top-secret project. There are night time raids in Nazi-occupied territory to slow down the German effort to build the bomb first.
Best of all, Sheinkin’s book is filled with all those small details that are the lifeblood of the best stories — and the details that novelists kill for when creating fiction! Among them is the best date story ever. A young Robert Oppenheimer (the genius physicist who later masterminds the bomb project) has driven his girlfriend to a romantic lookout. Instead of ravishing her, he decides to take a little walk alone. He never reappears. When the police find him the next morning, he’s asleep in his own bed, his girlfriend forgotten while he puzzled out a math problem on his walk home.
Later in the story, a group of tough-as-nails commandos raid the Vermork power plant, built into the side of a mountain, in an effort to derail German atomic research. It’s a scene that recalls (and must have inspired) something from Captain America. But the best part (and these are the small moments which really make a scene and build tension and credibility) is when the commandos actually wait while one of their prisoners rescues his glasses — not once but twice — before detonating their charges.
Sheinkin takes us right through to the terrifying test detonation in the desesert, and then to the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and the horrific aftermath. He doesn’t avoid talking about the huge political and moral questions posed by the creation of a weapon that can evaporate an entire city. The Cold War arms race with the Soviets, disarmament, and the lingering threat of nuclear attack are all addressed in Bomb.
Fascinating subject matter, and swift vital writing make Bomb a joy to read.
For me, it’s Bomb.
– Judge Kenneth Oppel
And the Winner of this match is……
We should have lots of people invested in the outcome of this very first match as we have the most popular book of the year in WONDER pitted against the most decorated book of the year in BOMB. I, too, would have chosen BOMB to move forward—no big surprise there. While Ken appreciated the multiple viewpoints in WONDER, I felt that they spun out of control after a while, but I’m in complete agreement that the excessive emotion of the piece ultimately undermined its strengths. Ken described BOMB as being “sculpted” and I think that’s an apt metaphor. Clearly, there is an abundance of primary source material, but Sheinkin carved away the excess parts of the story, leaving a carefully crafted work of literature. Looking ahead, will BOMB face the YA juggernaut CODE NAME VERITY or can TITANIC pull an upset for a nonfiction match-up?
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Firstly, I don’t really like the brackets all too much. They not only pit children’s books against adult books, but favorites (such as Bomb) against less praised and less flashy underdogs. I find this slightly unfair, although a battle of different stories is part of BoB.
And diversity is a good thing, as shown in Wonder.
Mr. Oppel gets that, sometimes, the small events or descriptions in a book stay with you, the raw emotion. This idea features in Auggie’s story, the concept that people look away at someone who seems different; but Wonder says that most (not all!) of those humans will become “wise and noble” in the end. With this logic, and the young audience of this book, I find Mr. Oppel’s quibble about character traits to be somewhat unfounded.
In Bomb, again, our judge realizes that details matter. From “the best date story ever” to two-times glasses-rescuing, Sheinkin hits right on the spot emotionally (notable, I think) and tackles nuclear warfare in a fast-paced book. I remember staying up late into the night engrossed in Bomb, and then having nothing to read the next day.
Because of this, I agree with Mr. Oppel’s decision.
– Kid Commentator RGN