Bomb: The Race To Build – And Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing. 2012. Edited to add that this is a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Newbery Medal Honor book; Sibert Book Award; YALSA Nonfiction Award winner.
It’s About: One nice thing about non-fiction titles: they tell you up front what a book will be about. This is about the invention of the atomic bomb, told through three stories: the scientific journey from the discovery of nuclear fission to the creation of and use of the atomic bomb; the spy story, as various people in different countries provide information on the American program to the USSR; and the military story, as commandos worked behind enemy lines in Nazi held Europe to stop the Nazis from being the first to create an atomic bomb.
The Good: One of the reasons I like non-fiction is it shows why spoilers don’t matter. Most readers will know that the Americans were indeed the first to create and use the atomic bomb; so it’s not about whether it happens, but how and why. Because there are three story threads, there is even a possibility that one of those three (the spy story or the commando story) may be new to the reader, providing the suspense some readers need in their books.
One of the reasons I like reading the National Book Award finalists after they are announced is that I can read the book looking for why a title got the nod. Here, I think it’s because of the way the three stories are twined together and complement each other, as well as make each story stronger. It’s also that (like Sheinkin’s Benedict Arnold) the writing style puts the reader in the moment, with the real life characters and events being told.
For those who are aware of the historical events depicted, Sheinkin provides information (or doesn’t provide information) that is enlightening. For example, the details on the raids on Nazi-held plants and planned kidnapping of German scientists; or that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg play such a minor role in the spy ring that they appear on only a few pages and aren’t even mentioned in the index. As a personal aside, when I was growing up the guilt of the Rosenbergs was still hotly debated. (For more on the Rosenbergs, see, for example, The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray[al] at the Crime Library.) (As an aside, I would love a book on American Communists for younger readers, especially about things like red diaper babies, with both sympathy and honesty.) While the Rosenbergs don’t figure much in Bomb, many other dedicated Soviets who spy based on various personal and political reasons are mentioned, including both men and women and parents with young children.
See what just happened there? How I wondered about other things, even did a bit of research? That’s one thing I love about a good book: that it satisfies me, yes; but that it also makes me think and want to know more.
Because Bomb shows just how exciting science can be. Because Bomb juggled an amazingly large cast of characters, and it was always clear who was who. Because of the exciting narration and pace. This is one of my Favorite Books Read of 2012.