The creation story of the atomic bomb told through a powerful and moving picture book

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.

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

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
$18 Buy on Amazon

Notable Replies

  1. Enkita says:

    Powerful and moving but is it accurate?

    Perhaps it's worth remembering that the biggest part of the Manhattan Project took place at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and in the early reactors where uranium was used to produce plutonium for the more "deliverable" bomb, the weapon that really started the Cold War.

    I am very ambivalent about the Manhattan Project - we now know that Germany was indeed working on a bomb and that Stalin wanted to surround Berlin to ensure he got the German research labs, scientists and hopefully the uranium, and it's possible that my father (who was out there, a naval officer trained in combined ops) would have been involved in any invasion of Japan. But testing the plutonium bomb reminds me of von Thoma's comment - that once a war is lost the death of any civilian is unnecessary.

    But what I've read here suggests that this is not the creation story of the atom bomb - except perhaps in the sense of a creation myth. If there is one thing I think we should have learned is that mythologising wars, their personnel and the surrounding events is a bad thing. Children should learn the truth.

  2. NukeML says:

    I think the best history is "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. I can't recommend it enough. Also, Richard Feynman wrote some insightful essays on the day to day life working on the Manhattan Project, contained in "Surely you're Joking, Mr Feynman"

    I've done a little work at Oak Ridge. Rhode's book details how the Calutrons there were wound with silver borrowed from the Treasury. The National commitment to this effort will likely never be repeated.

  3. I was going to suggest that; a powerful read and it does not flinch from the horror of its effects on people. In fact, the entire book up to that point, the minutiae of making one of these horrific weapons makes the victim's suffering all the more real.

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