When asked if I was interested in reviewing a picture book about the making of the atomic bomb, I told the publicist that a lot was going to depend on how the book ended. I had seen some of the interior art and text at that point, and I was intrigued by the way the tone of both Jeanette Winter’s illustrations and her son Jonah Winter’s text so thoroughly conveyed the almost frenzied, kinetic energy of the inventors and the eerily quiet secrecy of the The Secret Project. After reading the book, I realized that I had greatly underestimated the importance of the telling in its entirety, which is done so masterfully by the Winters.
The Secret Project is a quiet book. It takes place, of course, in the New Mexico desert. There is almost no dialogue, nor description of sound. And yet, we can hear the echo of the children in the desert, “cleared out” of their school to make way for scientists and workers. In the paintings of the “faraway nearby” outside the laboratory, we see the light and colors of the natural landscape, hear the soft, slow sounds of a coyote howling, of a woman’s paintbrush on canvas, of a Hopi man’s knife carving wood. Life outside the laboratory continues to create and sustain more life, while inside the secret lab, “the shadowy figures” are hurriedly working, crowded together under dim light. The pace of both word and image is markedly different in the closed up world and work of the men inside the lab than in the desert outside. Even when they are outside, the scientists are separate. The men are shown only in the dark shadows of places of their own making — a car, a bunker.
I won’t ruin the end of this book for you. It was not what I expected, but, upon reaching the end the way you’re supposed to (that is, after reading and being transported by the beginning and the middle), it was exactly as it should be.
The Secret Project
by Jonah Winter, Jeanette Winter (Illustrator)
Beach Lane Books
2017, 40 pages, 8.0 x 0.3 x 11.0 inches, Hardcover
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