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Guest blogger Joy Piedmont is back (and I think we’ll be taking advantage of her at least once more before the season is done!), covering another major nonfiction title of 2012.

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, Steve Sheinkin
Flash Point, September 2012
Reviewed from final copy

When I say, “World War II espionage” which 2012 young adult title comes to mind?

Yeah, I know Code Name Verity is the big name in this conversation, but Bomb is a gripping spy story in its own right.

There are three main threads of Steve Sheinkin’s book: the American effort to build the atomic bomb, the Allies attempts to sabotage German advances towards the atomic bomb, and the Russians’ work to steal the plans for the atomic bomb. Sheinkin has taken something sprawling and complex and molded it into a nonfiction title that reads like an epic action movie. (Seriously, read the chapter on the destruction of the German heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway and tell me you don’t imagine this scene from Inception.)

Sheinkin nails action pacing and easily incorporates real quotes from the people involved. He also makes physics and atomic theory, which would normally make my brain hurt digestible by introducing the theory in the context of actual experiments conducted prior to and during the Manhattan Project.

That juxtaposition of fiction style with nonfiction content characterizes the entire book. Bomb oozes style, and it’s the book’s greatest strength — and greatest weakness. Sheinkin has a firm command of fast pacing, snappy dialogue, and multiple storylines, which create a massively appealing read. With descriptive language and clever plot juggling, Sheinkin creates the atmosphere of life as a wartime spy (or a bomb-building physicist); it’s dangerous and exciting. This effective world building and use of stylistic tools create a book that feels light.

Dare I say it? Bomb is, at times, too easy.

Sheinkin portrays the blood, sweat, and tears of the people who built the atom bomb, but glosses over the moral dilemma that the Manhattan Project scientists faced. The last fifty pages of the book begin to address the devastating consequences of the project’s success—the test of the atomic bomb at Trinity, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—but Sheinkin is also finishing up the Russian spy plot, so just when the emotional and moral impact of the bomb needs to resonate for readers to really understand it all, other business demands their attention.

Just after the Trinity experiment, Oppenheimer reflects on a line of the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (p. 185). Rather than seize the moment to go deeper into Oppenheimer’s struggle, the book transitions away—to Truman, the Japanese leaders, the Soviets (there’s a lot to resolve) — and doesn’t return to the emotional and moral aspects for another thirty pages, a change is direction that lessens the impact and depth for readers. Yes, Sheinkin covers Oppenheimer resignation from his position as director of Los Alamos and his farewell speech expressing his concern for their creation. He also describes Oppenheimer’s meeting with Truman in which Oppenheimer says he feels he has “blood on [his] hands” (p.217). But Oppenheimer’s moral struggle seems less meaningful once the deed is done and we’ve just witnessed its reach; it’s too little too late for such a critical piece of the history surrounding the atomic bomb.

Aside from Bomb’s thematic issues, there is the problem of those single sentence chapter endings. Do I sound like a stuck record? I recently bemoaned how this narrative flourish occasionally distracted me from Deborah Hopkinson’s sensitive Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, but as more and more one-sentence paragraphs ended chapters in Bomb, I began to think that this is just a YA nonfiction standard that I’m not aware of. Karyn and I discussed it, and she hypothesized that it could be an artifice to create narrative excitement or interest, or to speed along reading, designed with a young reading audience in mind. If this is the case, then I question if it is an effective device. Ending a chapter with a single sentence packs an emotional punch, but sometimes it’s not needed; a writer should trust that they’ve established enough interest before that last sentence to keep a reader engaged. Don’t get me wrong, when used sparingly those sforzando moments can be great, but variety creates more interest — and demonstrates more literary chops — than the same trick used every time.

Although pacing was well-done overall, Bomb has a rushed ending. Sheinkin concludes with a description/warning against the atomic arms race, which is appropriate but hastily executed. Had readers been witness to the moral dilemma that the atomic bomb created, had we been presented with a strong argument against the bomb, then that last message would resonate. One might even argue that it would be unnecessary in a book more willing to live in the messiness of war. But style prevails in this book, so while it’s a well-crafted piece it lacks the gravitas that the topic needs.

It’s a huge topic, but then, Bomb is a huge book.

This is the most puzzling aspect of Bomb, actually. Over-sized nonfiction books usually contain lots of photos (or other visual information) and supplemental facts and figures — the large page size giving those elements more room for examination — but this is not the case here. Pictures appear only at the start of chapters and sections, and there are almost no supplemental materials. This amounts to design dissonance; the book’s outside signals something that isn’t on the inside. Also, the large size works against Bomb’s appeal as narrative nonfiction for non-required reading — take it from me, reading this book on the subway is cumbersome, and there is no reason for the large size or the slick paper. Given that design is one of the things the RealPrintz criteria specifically cite, the design dissonance (which amounts to a deeply flawed design) here is a black mark against this when it comes to whether it deserves to make the final five.

And that’s without even getting into questions about some issues of history and sourcing as well as other concerns, largely about backmatter, discussed on Heavy Medal (twice, and be sure to read the comments) and Crossreferencing; those alone might take this right out of the running. Or not. The committee, Real or Pyrite*, could deem one historical fact slightly mis-phrased and a lack of attention to multiple perspectives and deep backmatter to be minor flaws.

And despite its flaws, Bomb deserves the attention it has received. Sheinkin is a skilled writer who makes this thrilling (and chilling) true story into great narrative nonfiction. It has appeal for fiction and nonfiction readers and lots of style — but is it too much style and not enough substance? I lean towards yes. Do you have a different take? Let’s discuss in the comments! And remember: this is an official Pyrite* nominee — our ONLY Pyrite nonfiction nominee. So please feel free to discuss Bomb in those terms.


*The Pyrite Printz, or Pyrite, is the Someday My Printz Will Come mock Printz deliberation, and should not in any way be confused with YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, often referred to here as the RealPrintz or Printz. Our predictions, conversations, and speculation about potential RealPrintz contenders and winners reflect only our own best guesses and are not affiliated with YALSA or the RealPrintz committee. You probably figured that out on your own, but we like to make it clear!

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Several comments . . .

    1. On Heavy Medal, Sheinkin’s lack of judgment in regard to the moral and ethical complexity of not just the use of the atomic bomb, but the issues of patriotism and loyalty have generally been viewed as an overwhelming strength of the presentation of information. It is noI unprecedented, however. In HITLER YOUTH, for example, Bartoletti also provides a just-the-facts-ma’am approach that relies on the moral compass of the reader to recognize evil, leaving her audience to work through the attendant issues on their own. I admire both books for their restraint, for not pandering to the gatekeeper impulse to overcontextualize a situation.

    2. Short paragraphs of a sentence or two are a stylistic characteristic of Sheinkin’s writing and they appear throughout: at the beginning of chapters, in the middle of chapters, and at the end of chapters. Your complaint in TITANIC (which I have not checked) is that the single sentences at the end were a departure from the rest of the writing (and that took you out of the reading experience). Clearly, this is not the case with BOMB. Moreover, I would caution you about arguing for things that simply “take you out of the reading experience” as flaws in a book. Sure, you yourself may not vote for a book because of such a reason, but it’s harder to convince others that the problem is with the book rather than the reader.

    3. While I, too, wish the trim size of BOMB had been smaller and more conducive to pleasure reading, I’m not sure I would submit that argument at the table. One of the things that drives me crazy–and we have discussed this at Heavy Medal–is that people often assign and weight a much higher value to design in nonfiction. All books have design elements, however, even if they are invisble in fiction. What of the misleading cover of CODE NAME VERITY–which was described by someone as lesbian bondage? Or what of the underscoring issue that we discussed previously? Both of those are design choices that could create just as much dissonance for the reader. Personaly, I find all of these very silly and not even worth bringing up.

    4. I encourage people to read the Heavy Medal blog posts that Joy cites–and check us out later in the week as we do a final recap as well.

    5. Joy, can you compare and contrast BOMB and TITANIC and give us your opinion on which one is more suitable for the Printz Award? Or maybe you find neither one suitable for the Printz Award?

    6. Karyn mentioned the possibility of a gendered component to our reading of CODE NAME VERITY. Do you think it possible that there is also a gendered component to BOMB? And if, so does an entirely female committee give the former book an advantage and the latter a disadvantage?

    • The cover of CODE NAME VERITY is one of the most gorgeous, evocative covers I’ve ever seen, and perfectly tells the story within. I thought the New York Times reviewer you mention was perhaps going for a cheap laugh or was simply lacking in imagination. (You’re probably around here, NYT reviewer, but I feel strongly about that.)

      I don’t think there’s a gendered response to BOMB, except in that I have to acknowledge, reluctantly, that the female readers around here (the SLJ blogs, Goodreads, etc) seem to have more of a pro-fiction bias than the male readers. But for this book specifically–no , I don’t think so. TITANIC is a subject that is more likely to draw the attention of female readers than many other nonfiction topics, in my experience, but it is still nonfiction, and still engaging to many men. Anyway, I think the idea of a gendered response to CODE NAME VERITY (which I had also been contemplating, and wasn’t brave enough to bring up) goes deeper than any possibility of gendered response to BOMB, which would be more about subject matter and maybe style of writing.

  2. Joy Piedmont says:


    RE: morals in Bomb — There are times when a lack of judgement is necessary in factual writing. What’s happening in BOMB though is not a lack of judgement, but a presentation of history that does not fully represent the people in involved.

    In July 1945 Leo Szilard submitted a letter and petition signed by a group of Manhattan Project scientists to President Truman expressing their moral concerns about the use of atomic weapons ( and, under “Primary Sources” in the left navbar, click on Leo Szilard’s petition to the president).

    In the Epilogue, Sheinkin’s penultimate paragraph includes this statement: “The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how human’s created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet.” Despite the balance shown in the statement, BOMB on the whole is more focused on the first sentence, with brief mentions of the concerns of Truman and Oppenheimer. People involved in the Manhattan project, people that Sheinkin uses and discusses, had tremendous moral concerns about their work, and it seems a shame not to include them in a book that, in the end, wants to be about the wonder and terror of the atomic bomb.

    RE: those one-sentence paragraph enders — In BOMB, yes, the use of this device does fit with Sheinkin’s style, but as I mention in the review, I think it’s an overused crutch to create suspense. As for Hopkinson, they took me out of the reading experience because they are an abrupt stylistic change. That is not just a comment on how I react as a reader, but a critique on the writing itself.

    RE: Design — Design is a criteria used to assess books for the Printz, so I think it’s worth mentioning in fiction or nonfiction. Of course, it’s going to be a bigger part of the discussion for nonfiction, but only because design matters more in nonfiction with the combination of various visual and textual elements. I would be surprised if design wasn’t a part of the conversation when WHY WE BROKE UP became a Printz Honor book last year.

    As this is becoming a long comment, I’ll save my responses to you last two points for another time. 🙂

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      My bad, I meant @Jonathan! This is what happens when you comment/type in haste (while on cold meds). Apologies!

    • I stand by my earlier statement that Sheinkin is not primarily interested in teasing out the moral ambiguities of the BOMB, but as I was leafing through the book I noticed that one of your complaints about the book might be getting the way of another one:

      That sentence about Oppenheimer remembering the line from the Bhagavad-Gita is one of those pesky single-sentence chapter endings you dislike. I think it is pretty clear that Sheinkin’s intention in having it end the chapter that way is to force the reader to think about it and the implications of what happened at Trinity.

  3. “Oppenheimer’s moral struggle seems less meaningful once the deed is done and we’ve just witnessed its reach; it’s too little too late for such a critical piece of the history surrounding the atomic bomb”

    Isn’t this entirely appropriate to the way the actual conversation about the Atomic Bomb took place in this country, and among the scientific community? Everyone was in a hurry to get it done, and then only afterwards did people begin to doubt the need for the bomb at all.

    Also, you seem to imply that the atomic bomb was a moral negative, a position I happen to agree with, but which is not by any means the only rational position to take on the bomb.

    In general, I would say that the most important point is that the book is about exactly what it says it is: the race to build and steal the bomb, not the critical aftermath of the decision to use the bombs, which would require a completely separate kind of book.

    I agree completely with Jonathan’s take on the design. If we’re going to start picking on design then let’s have a full discussion of the decisions fiction publishers make as to trim size, cover art, paper stock, font, text size, etc. It can’t be something we just bring up when we discuss nonfiction books.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I don’t think design is something we bring up only when it comes to nonfiction — it came up with Chopsticks and The Year of the Beasts, two of this year’s fiction titles with significant visual material, and I also mentioned design in my write-up of After the Snow, where I found the nontraditional font choice very problematic. Last year we gushed about the design of The Girl Who Fell Beneath, and if Wise Man’s Fear were a book I had reviewed here, I definitely would have talked about the gorgeous choice of paper stock, which made reading the book a sensory experience, and almost made me forget it’s massive size.

      In the case of Bomb, the design is flawed, and design is specifically listed in the RealPrintz criteria, so it is indeed worth noting how it fails (just as it we did for After the Snow). I think saying it’s silly because you disagree (as Jonathan did) is dismissive and unfair. And I think Joy is right to note that in YA (and J) NF, design is generally part of the narrative thrust and flow (“combination of various visual and textual elements”), as it is in graphic and illustrated novels, and therefore something we must note (whether to the good or the bad) — in a straight prose, whether F or NF, design is mostly just font and whitespace, and notable only if special.

      The lack of attention to design in many conversations generally means the design falls anywhere between inoffensive and good — that’s is why the bulk of narrative prose doesn’t get called out for design. This goes for covers as well — the truly awful tend to get mentioned, and the best, but the eh covers, or the pretty covers that actually don’t make a lot of sense or the somewhat boring or bland but not actually awful we just ignore.

      All that said, I am pretty able to geek out about paper weights and trim sizes and have been known to measure books to assess common sizes and get pretty shirty about mass market height books that are too square to shelve with the other paperbacks and series that change their design halfway through. So if anyone does want to have a design conversation about ALL the books, I’m in.

      • That’s for the reminder about AFTER THE SNOW, but I think that is a major exception. Beyond that, I’ve never seen anyone discuss design features of a standard, text-only novel. Unfortunately (or forunately – yay reading!) all the pyrite finalist books have long holds lists and I only own ARCs, so I can’t come up with examples, but I really disagree that it is somehow more important to nonfiction and graphic books than text-only ones. For example: Personally, I hate pretty much any binding that doesn’t allow me to lay a book open flat to any page. A lot of oversize nonfiction books have better bindings for this than smaller novels. Should I automatically take points away from every book that doesn’t lie flat the way I like? But then, part of the reason I agree with Jonathan that it is slightly silly is that I read so few finished print copies of books these days – I read ebooks and ARCs mainly.

        As for BOMB, if we really want to get into the design issue, I actually disagree that the design is flawed. I personally enjoy my nonfiction to be presented in a regular trade size, but not everyone agrees–especially the younger readers for whom BOMB is primarily intended. I had a discussion with Cynthia Levinson (which will be up on The Hub at the end of the month) about my qualms with the textbook style double column format of WE’VE GOT A JOB (which I disliked), and she mentioned that while she’s heard that complaint from older teens, younger teens seem to be happy with the design.

        Joy says: “take it from me, reading this book on the subway is cumbersome, and there is no reason for the large size or the slick paper” and I guess I would respond – what are the assumptions you are making with that statement. Why does large size and slick paper need a justification but small size and matte paper does not? Why should one be the default? And why are you reading on the subway? Is that the way 10-14 year olds are going to be approaching this book?

        That issue of assumptions is why I disagree with Karyn’s statement “The lack of attention to design in many conversations generally means the design falls anywhere between inoffensive and good “–I think the reason it never comes up with fiction is that we all just assume that fiction is “supposed” to be formatted a certain way, and don’t think about the choices that could be made.

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        Mark, I think it’s more that we’ve been trained to take a certain format in stride — hence my saying it’s inoffensive. It’s familiar and — because we’ve been reading fiction formatted this way for most of our reading lives — it may not be enhancing the content but it’s certainly not detracting from it.

        As far as reading primarily ARCs or E, I believe that the expectation is still that Printz committee members spend time with the finished product for exactly that reason — you need the designed edition to assess the design. For all books. I generally read ARCs whenever possible (they are lighter and I don’t mind writing all over them), but I’ve got nearly all of the books I’ve reviewed in ARC in final copy in my library, and I do make a point to page through them and check for anything that is notably different from the ARC in terms of design. Generally ARCs in YA and Children’s are more like F&Gs, in that the final design in present in the ARC, but this is not always the case, particularly with image-heavy nonfiction, and the difference in the reading experience can be significant.

        And finally, a note about reading on the subway — it’s how they are likely to read it in my neck of the woods, where most kids I know are commuting by subway by middle school, and many do so by kindergarten. And many of them seem to be reading or doing homework, especially if they commute a long way. Still, that’s definitely a geographic bias. But if you look past that example, Joy seems to be saying that it’s a clumsily large book for no apparent reason, and I think that would be noted by readers of any age/in any seating situation.

      • “Mark, I think it’s more that we’ve been trained to take a certain format in stride — hence my saying it’s inoffensive. It’s familiar and — because we’ve been reading fiction formatted this way for most of our reading lives — it may not be enhancing the content but it’s certainly not detracting from it.”

        But Karyn, that’s my point. Why should we privilege that format simply because it has been the standard for X years (and it hasn’t been for *that* long in the scheme of the written word)? “because we’ve been trained to” strikes me as not a very good answer.

  4. Joy Piedmont says:

    “In general, I would say that the most important point is that the book is about exactly what it says it is: the race to build and steal the bomb, not the critical aftermath of the decision to use the bombs, which would require a completely separate kind of book.”

    Fair point, Mark. In light of your comment, I think what bothers me about the lack of moral exploration is that Sheinkin hints at it (and makes it a big part of his epilogue) but it’s not established in the text. Personally, I feel like this is an inconsistency in the text, but I see that the book is not necessarily aimed toward philosophical discussion.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Sheinkin mentions that most of the scientists believed their work to be finished once Germany surrendered, implying that they were much more comfortable using the bomb against Hilter (i.e. evil incarnate) than they were against using it against Japan. He makes it pretty clear; he just doesn’t delve into it. This is a very large story and Sheinkin has edited and crafted the book to support the arms race and espionage rather than a host of other issues that he has touched upon. I know SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD predates this blog, but I think that is a similarly large story, one that we could take Aronson to task for not including more information about any number of things. In the end, I think we ought to judge the book for what it is rather than what we want it to be.

    2. Can you explain why you think the one-sentence paragraphs in either BOMB or TITANIC generate suspense? I think a rhetorical question at the end of a chapter creates suspense, but aside from that I think the length of the sentence has far less to do with creating suspense than the actual content of the sentence.

    For example, at the end of chapter three in TITANIC, we have three short staccato paragraphs.

    Murdoch tried his best. He had so little time.
    The seconds ticked by. Thirty seven seconds in all.
    They were not enough.

    If Hopkinson had lumped these sentences into one paragraph instead of three, then theoretically it should be less suspenseful, right? I don’t think so.

    Murdoch tried his best. He had so little time. The seconds ticked by. Thirty seven seconds in all. They were not enough.

    I also find that Hopkinson, like Sheinkin, uses quite a few brief paragraphs of one to two sentences throughout and, thus, it really is not a stylistic departure for her. I’m also curious to know what you think of fiction writers who use this technique, say Patrick Ness or Sherman Alexie.

    3. Regarding the design . . . “Of course, it’s going to be a bigger part of the discussion for nonfiction, but only because design matters more in nonfiction with the combination of various visual and textual elements.” This may be true generally, but do you think the combination of visual and textual elements–which is virtually nonexistent–really warrants it being a bigger part of the discussion for this particular book?

    • I certainly can’t explain it adequately, but I think it’s almost a given of long standing that short sentences at the end of a chapter DO create suspense. For the average reader, anyway. Maybe not for you. I find the three separate paragraph version much more exciting/suspenseful than the one paragraph version you post above.

      I was thinking that–and I mean this in a completely non-pejorative way–it’s sort of a LAW & ORDER thing, and wondering how to explain that helped me see. When an author divides the sentences up like that, s/he forces a rhythm in the reading that is just not there in a paragraph where the reader flows from one sentence to another. It’s like an actor putting beats into the script, creating a particular emphasis for a viewer.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    “And I think Joy is right to note that in YA (and J) NF, design is generally part of the narrative thrust and flow (“combination of various visual and textual elements”), as it is in graphic and illustrated novels, and therefore something we must note (whether to the good or the bad) — in a straight prose, whether F or NF, design is mostly just font and whitespace, and notable only if special.”

    But there are nonfiction books where there is virtually no combination of visual and textual elements (say CHARLES AND EMMA). In this book, the text and the pictures aren’t even on the same page. Therefore, doesn’t this book more closely resemble the straight prose where design is mostly font and white space, notable only if special?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Yes, I think that’s exactly what I’m saying! In Bomb, I believe Joy is saying that the issue is not the number of pictures or layout so much as that the trim size and paper stock imply visual elements that aren’t there — that’s the dissonance. Charles and Emma, on the other hand, has a trim size that matches the content (narrative prose, not hugely visual).

  7. I’m a little puzzled about the design issue, frankly. I thought it was fine. I never wondered why it wasn’t smaller and more compact. Karyn acknowledges that whether kids are reading it on the subway in New York is a regional thing, but I don’t see why it should be assumed that all readers, or the majority of readers, or even a lot of readers, would find it clumsy. Some of you don’t like the design, but is it fair to call it flawed? I mean, who gets to decide? I don’t work with books, or children, so I have zero experience with this besides my own remembered childhood experiences. Clearly I don’t get to decide. But I don’t like the idea of what seems to me like a very, very minor point having an influence on whether a true contender gets an award. I get the one about Bootleg having poorly printed photographs; I have brought it up before when I’ve felt the placement of illustrations vs text made a book difficult to read. But how the book sits on the shelf or feels when you hold it? I don’t get it.

    Re: the moral ambiguity–I’ve mentioned THE GREEN GLASS SEA in conjunction with BOMB before (read it, if you haven’t!). Some Goodreads reviewers take the book to task for not explaining thoroughly that the atomic bomb was wrong. That wasn’t the role of the book, but it was also subtly present, and I think the kids reading the book will get that it wasn’t simply an awesome advance of science the way, say, the moon landing was. I thought Sheinkin similarly allowed readers to draw their own conclusions–actually, I thought he was a little heavy-handed about it in comparison. I agree with what Mark says above about it somewhat mirroring Oppenheimer’s own philosophical journey (or rather, what is known about it). And I thought it was effective having to move back into the Russian spies, because again, that’s kind of how it was (and often is, in other crisis situations). This terrible thing has just happened–but we can’t think about it too much because something else is already happening, we need to take care of everything else.

  8. Joy Piedmont says:

    So much great discussion to respond to!

    I think Wendy made the point about one-sentence endings beautifully. It’s all about rhythm. Feel and sound is a huge part of language and plays a major part in pacing a book. An endless, complex sentence that you can get lost in will surely slow down an individual’s reading, whereas short, simple sentences will pick up the pace. Spacing sentences out as their own paragraphs will make reading even faster because of the added white space. Of course, everyone reads differently, so I acknowledge that the extra white space of one-sentence paragraphs may not effect on the rhythm of the language in your head. But, in my experience as a reader and writer, writers usually do this for rhythm and pacing.

    As for trim size, I agree that it’s not always a part of the conversation, nor should it always be (and it’s actually becoming a larger part of the discussion than I thought it would be). But when there is a cognitive dissonance between the design and the content, I think it warrants discussion. Wendy notes that it wasn’t an issue for her, so perhaps it’s a personal dissonance that I experienced, but I’d be curious to know the reasoning behind the decision to print BOMB in a larger format. To me, assessing design means examining all aspects of the book. With fiction titles there aren’t too many variations. However, and Karyn has already touched on this, good book design should be unnoticeable but that doesn’t mean that design choices aren’t deliberate and worth discussion if they aren’t in service to the text.

    Finally, I would have to reread BOMB to get a better sense of the book’s neutrality, and to reassess if the clues I saw were actually unfulfilled thematic elements or hints to lead the reader to their own conclusion. I think everyone has made excellent points about Sheinkin’s intent though and you have all definitely given me a lot to think about.

  9. If we talk about JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS on here, I’d love that discussion to include the choice of blue ink for the interior–a design element I found hella distracting in a novel. Maybe that will help balance the F/NF design discussion disparity?

  10. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, when the lines are piled on top of each other, the way they are in that example I quoted then, yes, it does create a rhythm and cadece that enchances suspense–I’m thinking about one of our favorites last year, BLIZZARD OF GLASS, with that wonderful catalogue of who was doing what in the moment the explosion struck. Of course, that’s an even longer list with even greater suspense, so I do agree that the content and the form both create the suspense. I’d say about two-thirds of Hopkinson’s chapters end in single sentence paragraphs, but some of those are not the short clipped variety. You’d have to reread them to figure out that they were only a sentence. Of the remaining ones, several more have a single sentence that follows a big paragraph (these do not convey suspense to me in the way that the example I quoted did). I do notice the single sentences, but I don’t see them in a consistent pattern that seems like overuse to me. And I still think the single greatest thing that creates suspense is the content, not the form.

  11. Elizabeth Burns says:

    Mark raises the issue of design & fiction. First, I’d like to join in with Karyn — when talking design, it has to be done with the final print book in mind. Not the ARC, and not the ebook. See for example the covers on Blythe Woolston’s books. In the ARC that would be lost. Actually, when talking about prizes & lists, it’s the final book, not the ARC. I’m unsure right now where committees stand on ebooks. Second, while it depends on the book, I look to see what font is used, the weight and cut of papers, etc. — for example, has a book told in journal form given a look of a journal? Third, Kelly at Stacked is much better than I at keeping track of this type of thing, so I point you to her blog post about book desing.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      That’s a great post, Liz, thanks!

      Mark, I did note design in my CNV review (the underlining, which I did not really like), and last year noted it in reviews of Steampunk and Anna Dressed in Blood, plus in illustrated books like the Girl Who Fell. I also called out two books for stunning covers when I wrote the debut roundup post. And of course we note design aspects in reviews of graphic novels and books where it is a significant factor, like Chopsticks or some of the NF titles we’ve covered. I think design is something Someday reviewers (by which I mostly mean Sarah and I) note pretty much all of the time, although we don’t always mention it. If the design works, without any extra flourishes — a serif font that is easily readable, white space and margins within the standard range, text on paper that is standard weight and color (again, there’s a slight range), no illustrations or other visuals, and a cover that is acceptable, it’s not worth mentioning — just as not every book gets equal time devoted to the other suggested criteria in the RealPrintz P&P: Story, Voice, Style, Setting, Accuracy, Characters, Theme, Illustrations, Design (including format, organization, etc.). We try to focus on the aspects of the book that are critical for the discussion, which is what we did at the RealPrintz discussions as well (although the finalists get raked over the coals for everything in the end). I think it is totally fair to say that design can add value or detract, but often is neutral, and when it’s neutral, it is not critical for Printz purposes to touch on it.

      This is why I may be a bit bristly at the seeming implication that it’s somehow an attack on NF to look closely at the design if we don’t always scrutinize the same factors in fiction — NF is about relaying facts, so style, accuracy, illustrations and design are the most likely to apply, whereas for a lot of fiction design is negligible, especially as compared to the other criteria — accuracy also plays a smaller role, often. These are all generalizations, of course, and I can point to exceptions myself, but fiction and nonfiction are different and are assessed differently. And should be.

      • let me see if I can crystallize my thoughts on design a little better:

        1) I absolutely think design is appropriate to look to, and obviously it is a part of the Printz criteria. BUT:

        2) I think there is an over-reliance on design as a discussion point for nonfiction (perhaps not on this blog, but in general) because it is more obvious.

        3) I don’t think that the fact that there is a more or less default design mode for most fiction should privilege that design or make book (fiction or nonfiction) that deviate from it have to justify themselves for breaking from the default.

        4) Perhaps most important, but unstated so far (at least that I’ve seen): there are elements of design that are more or less in the hands of the author and elements that are more or less out of the hands of the author. Underlining of words in CNV, the existence and content of sidebars, the choice of photographs or other reproductions are more or less authorial, while things like trim size, font, columnal layout, placement of sidebars, and more are generally publisher decisions. I know that this is not stated in the Printz criteria, but my personal bias is that I would prefer to discuss elements that the author has more direct control over.

        5) In most cases, I find that those decisions the publisher has control over fall far more on the end of personal taste, and thus are much harder to evaluate in any objective way

        6) So, in the specific case of BOMB, I feel that the complaint that the trim size is too large is not persuasive to me because a) I think there is a hidden assumption in favor of novel-sized trim, b) Sheinkin did not have any control over this decision, and c) I don’t personally agree that the trim is a problem, and think there are many teens who would agree with me.

        Does that make sense?

      • Karyn Silverman says:

        Mark, it does. My thoughts — on 3, I take a different position. I read a lot of books about design and teach basics of good design to my students, and have also worked with designers on some projects (usually as part of a focus and ideas group). Also, I’m married to someone who does a lot of design work. And one of the ideas that has come to me from all of those sources is that design that deviates from the norm must do so for a good reason and do so well. For instance, a bottom navigation bar on a website. So I think Joy’s concern about the trim size is valid as a reader response in that we have a text-only narrative (barring those few images between chapters) sized more like a visual-heavy narrative. Or, we have a trim size indicative of visuals and content that lacks them. It’s a slightly troubling aspect. Is it the final make it or break it for this book? By no means. Is it Sheinkin’s doing? Probably not. But did it deserve mention? Yes.

        Re: 4, I see what you mean, but I don’t think it’s unfair to note these things, and re: 5, most of this, really, comes down to personal taste. Isn’t our argument over on the Brides review ultimately about how we feel about things, and a question of taste?

        Finally, it depends on your value of teen. My HS students never read the books with larger trim sizes unless they have to, because they look too young. This has been the case when I have booktalked these books and even when the book is just right for a paper or research assignment, it’s an almost impossible sell (Good Brother, Bad Brother wins the prize for book most often rejected, because several 10th graders write Lincoln assassination papers every year). So if Bomb is aimed at a YA audience encompassing the HS crowd, it’s a problem that the trim size implies to my students that the content is younger and less nuanced than it actually is, especially since this is a book that I think is not actually too young for a gr 9-12 collection (unlike the books clearly aimed at ages 10-14). Since Joy works with me, she presumably holds the same biases and assumptions about teen reading that I do, and with our teens size does matter. The ONLY 2012 YA NF book that has even been touched (and I had them all on display at various times, some of them more than once) was Titanic. (Full disclosure, we don’t have a copy of No Crystal Stair, and Moonbird I didn’t process for my collection, but we do have it at our K-8 library.)

  12. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m trying really hard not to get sucked back into this conversation . . .

    I agree with most of what Mark has said. I also realize that I bring a lot of baggage to this issue, and since I publicly flaunt my baggage on Heavy Medal, I kind of think everybody knows where I’m coming from on these nonfiction design issues. I never meant to imply that design is not important or that this blog does not discuss design in fiction or that anybody’s reader response to design is not valid.

    We’ve spent lots of time discussing whether the design of BOMB and MOONBIRD inhibit teen readers, but I think we all know what design element is even more important than either the trim size or the sidebars: the cover. Any YA librarian knows how a bad cover can kill a good book. Fortunately, most of the Printz Award-winning books have had good or neutral covers–with one exception: WHERE THINGS COME BACK. I know some people may disagree–and I would love to hear from you–but assuming the majority of us agree this *is* a design flaw, then we need to consider how important it is, how much weight we should give it. If we allow the cover to play such a significant role that WHERE THINGS COME BACK falls to the silver or, worse yet, out of contention entirely, haven’t we completely sidestepped the intellectual challenge of dealing with what the author actually did?

    This is really the crux of my crabbiness. Do we default to design evaluation in nonfiction because we are unwilling/unfamilar/unable to grapple with the content?

  13. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Another question: Is there a design dissonance in TITANIC? The trim size of that book suggests that it is a textual experience, but then we get a highly visual presentation of information. Would that book not have been better suited to a larger trim size? Joy, since you reviewed both of the book, why did one strike you as a design dissonance, but the other one didn’t?

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      True, TITANIC does has elements that are not typical for a smaller trim size. However, as I note in my review, the special boxes and photos are used to embroider or contextualize the text sparingly, in a way that feels different from what you would expect in a narrative in a small trim size, but not negatively dissonant. Yes, this could be my feeling because I am biased to accept the smaller package (and whatever comes with it) but it also speaks to the superior design in TITANIC.

      • Yeah, even though i don’t have a problem with the design of BOMB, when I compare it to TITANIC (in memory; I read both several months ago), it’s immediately clear to me as well that TITANIC has the superior design. Not that I think that should be very important, but TITANIC really is a pretty tight package.


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