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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 1: Bomb vs. Wonder

by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
by R.J. Palacio
Random House

Judged by
Kenneth Oppel


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


  1. One of the things I love about BOB is that it doesn’t ask the judge to figure out which book is most distinguished — instead it asks judges to look at two books and simply choose the one they think is the best book (and I think there is a difference between best and most distinguished). I loved both of these books, but I would have chosen Wonder (and that’s why it got my undead vote — I was afraid this was going to happen). II think that Wonder had some flaws that prevented it from being the most distinguished book (I totally agree with Jonathan that some of the points of view, most especially the boyfriend’s and Miranda’s, were unnecessary) but I think that for me it was the book that stayed with me the longest, and I think if our school did the one book/one school idea, it would be my #1 choice for all students at my middle school to read.

  2. The Brain Lair says

    Yes! 1 for 1! I agree wholeheartedly with Oppel, but in my own words, Wonder ruined itself with too much “niceness”. While I hand it out to 6th graders each day, the sophisticated ones think it’s too manipulative. They’ve been exposed to too many anti-bullying campaigns. It’s sort of unfair to Wonder to go up against triple medal winning Bomb, though! It’s action-packed pacing gives it the advantage!

    I look forward to the Bomb vs Code Name Verity match!

  3. that’s a relief….
    Score one for the anti-“guidancecounselorfiction” crowd!
    Can G.C.F. become a thing? I love how derogatory and specific it is. I’m ready for the day when you can say, “Have you read that new book by ________? It started out fine, but it turns out it’s total GCF.”

  4. YES!!!!!

    As a former fifth grade teacher and someone who currently works with 4th grade + I agree that Polacio nailed 5th grade politics. This, to me, was always Wonder’s greatest strength. And it’s a book that I enjoyed, even if I didn’t love it. The further I get away from it though the more problematic I find elements of it. I still actively try to get kids to read it. The outcomes of that have been mixed.

    Bomb is so well done for all the reasons Oppel mentions here. There’s a reason it’s the most decorated book of the year. And it’s so much fun to read. I’m using it in one of the classes I’m teaching next year and I can not wait to teach it.

  5. Aw, shucks. Mind you, I’m pretty sure I would have picked BOMB myself, if I were the judge. But I was kind of hoping WONDER would finally get a little recognition. BOMB already has plenty.

    Mind you, it’s only one round. Because either one will fall beneath the might that is CODE NAME VERITY! (I hope I hope)

  6. Well, I would have picked Wonder because I haven’t read Bomb, yet. Not a distinguished reason at all. Now, I have even MORE encouragement to read Bomb! I have it on hold at TWO libraries. Come one, whoever has it out now!

  7. Sam Bloom says

    Good call by the judge! (And by Eric…)

  8. Paige – how funny: The boyfriend’s and Miranda’s narration chapters were my favorite! It’s one thing to hear the thoughts of the sister or even the classmate. That’s fairly typical. But when your girlfriend’s (both capital G romantic and BFF style) little brother is the strangest looking human you’ve encountered… how do you react to that? It was the end of the book that made me go “Oh, well… of course THAT happened” because it felt so GCF (love it!) and predictable. Still enjoyed it, still recommend it.

    I was surprised how much I liked Bomb. I’d been putting off reading it because I really don’t do non-fiction. Glad for this battle, however, because it pushed me to read it and I found it rather riveting! Immediately changed my prediction. (Whew! One for one!) Immediately handed it off to a coworker who so far has just one complaint: there are too many “Knut’s” in the Norwegian storyline.

  9. You bracket-planners knew this would happen, didn’t you? Way to get us invested early on! Complete respect for this decision and the reasoning behind it, and for Bomb, for that matter. Just… poor Wonder. Come on, Undead Poll!

  10. Bomb was actually the book I thought would win, I just loved Wonder and was pulling for it. When trying to do my brackets this year, I probably struggled most with this match and with matches 3 & 5.

  11. Library Girl says

    Well I’m 0 for 1, but like most I am not surprised at this decision. Bomb is, by far, the most riveting nonfiction book I have come across in years. It flies off my library shelf as soon as it comes through the circulation desk! Yet, despite Bomb’s worthiness I was hoping to see Wonder get some recognition beyond the adoration of my library patrons. I agree that Wonder was over utopianized and a bit GCF (this has now become part of my library lexicon), but having worked with kids in the middle grades for many years, Wonder hits the nail on the head as far as interraltionships and school dynamics. Yes, the ending wrapped up too nicely (I may have rolled my eyes…), but the emotions and perspective gained through this book will stay with the reader forever. Call me sappy, but in my opiniion touching the heart wins over touching the mind!

  12. YES!! Nonfiction gets no respect so I’m thrilled to see Bomb winning this round! Now maybe it can hang on bit longer. I tried booktalking it to LIBRARIANS and only a few bit on Bomb. Those who have read it just love it.

  13. Oh my, oh my – I had no idea how this round would play out, but knew I’d be delighted either way. One of my favorite pieces of fiction in the past year, and one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read ever – Win/Win!

    I think my favorite part of this round of the revelation of GCF. My husband actually IS a guidance counselor and I’d told him he just HAD to read Wonder… wonder if he’s heard of GCF?

    Well done, Mr. Sheinkin!

  14. Hooray! It’s always sweet when cream-of-the-crop nonfiction gets recognition. So much of the nonfiction presented to elementary and middle school readers is at best utilitarian.

    For me, Wonder — though I acknowledge it as quality writing — just wrapped up too easily and was too much the kind of book adults want kids to read for character education purposes.
    (I, too, am adding GCF to my personal lexicon.)

  15. I fully expected Bomb to win, but oh, how I love Wonder! Just a few weeks ago, friends were at my house. Their fifth-grade son saw Wonder on my shelf, fell into a chair, and just kept saying “Oh, that’s such an awesome book. That’s the best book ever. Mom, you HAVE to read that book. Wonder is so awesome.” So far, 10-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds, 65-year-olds, and 75-year-olds have told me that they loved it. But I should add that the same 75-year-old (my dad) liked Bomb, too. The books at battle this year are the strongest list yet.

  16. Very happy about this outcome. I didn’t expect much from Bomb before I read it and was amazed by the pacing, the characterization, the way you just had to keep reading, as well as the emotional impact of what it meant to create the bomb. I expected a lot from Wonder and was disappointed by the way the end manipulated my emotions and felt unreal. I understand why young people like Wonder but think it will pale against these other, stronger contenders.

  17. I have 18 kids who correctly predicted BOMB would dominate! I also had 18 kids who thought WONDER would beat BOMB. It was weird to have a tie on the first match, but it was what it was. Now I have 18 kids proud of their prognostications and 18 shaking their heads. It is all good because kids are thinking about books and authors. The goal at my school is to get a streak of correct predictions, and 18 kids have started their streak!

  18. YES! my personal favorite was bomb. been an avid fan since last year, huge fan of the kid commentators. Will the other one be back as well?

  19. YES! my personal favorite was bomb. been an avid fan since last year, huge fan of the kid commentators. Will the other one be back as well?

  20. In the world in which I choose to exist, where both BOMB and WONDER command the awe of my young minions, I am most gratified to have two such kid-pleasing books on my shelves. Well, not actually on my shelves as they are currently having battles of their own in on-hold skirmishes within our library’s circulatory system. But when it comes to determining which book should rise victorious in a contest of excellence, there really is not contest, which of course Oppel acknowledged.

    As to the term Guidance-Counselor-Fiction–this is apt I suppose. After all, in an attempt to stem a threatening tide of bulling in our school, our principal asked me to develop a list of books to be read, “for the betterment of our students” at the beginning of the year. The definition of GCF would be why adult might urge books such as WONDER on children, but not why children find books like WONDER so satisfying themselves. I like to think of it as developing the “empathy gene”. I see it happen every spring in many of my sixth-grade girls who are desperate for just one more holocaust book. They’ve begun to be aware that atrocities happen in the world and perhaps they are looking for a way to exist among them. And perhaps they are looking for a way to make a difference.

    In WONDER, I did find the bulling heavy-handed and the wrap up a bit contrived and saccharine, but who cares. Not my students.

    BOMB is spectacular and should be recognized at such.

    Although, Sondy, as we know it is going down next round – truth!

    (Or, ahem, Verity)

  21. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    Yes, the other Kid Commentator from last year will be returning as well.

  22. kristine a says

    phew, Bomb blew me away. What a page turner! I have it going far into my brackets!!


  1. […] best children’s and teens’ books kicked off today, March 12, with celebrated YA author Kenneth Oppel’s verdict: R. J. Palacio’s middle grade novel Wonder (Random) versus Steve Sheinkin’s distinguished Bomb […]

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