Sheinkin, S. (2012). Bomb: The race to build—and steal—the world’s most dangerous weapon. New York: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN: 9781596434875
Genre: Nonfiction/history / Format: Prose Book
Awards: Newbery Medal Nominee (2013), Sibert Medal (2013), Rhode Island Teen Book Award Nominee (2015), Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2014), National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2012), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction (2013), Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award Nominee (2015), Margaret A. Edwards Award (2020)
Reading level: Lexile 740L-1010L (source: teachingbooks.net)
Interest Level: Grades 7-10 (source: Booklist Online)
Plot Summary: Bomb does what is says on the cover: tell the story of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, along with the competition and trickery of the competing powers trying to get there first. Sheinkin includes many characters in many different settings, with a focus on three related narratives: American scientists working to build the bomb, Allied efforts to sabotage the German nuclear research program, and Soviet spies trying to steal technological secrets from the US. The book follows a chronological history, introducing key players like Robert J. Oppenheimer and charting developments in physics in the late 1930s that led scientists to believe in the theoretical possibility of the atom bomb. The story continues with the onset of the war and the establishment of the Manhattan project. Sheinkin weaves in stories of individuals like Knut Haukelid, a Norwegian resistance fighter who led a commando team on a mission to destroy a German heavy water plant, and Theodore Hall, a teenaged scientist working on the bomb project in Los Alamos who gave detailed information to the Soviets. The story wraps up with the dropping of the bomb and the beginning of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR.
Author Background: Steve Sheinkin is a much-decorated author of historical works for YA and middle-grade audiences. YALSA recognized him with the 2020 Edwards Award for a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature,” and even before that he had earned multiple medals for works like Bomb, Most Dangerous, The Port Chicago 50, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold.
Sheinkin originally wrote screenplays and comics before settling into a job as a writer for an educational publishing company, working on textbooks. He credits that work as both helping him improve his skills and habits as a writer, and helping him discover a wealth of stories from history that he would like to write about. His current bibliography is balanced between fast-paced but heavy-hitting YA nonfiction and lighter, anecdotal nonfiction or historical fiction for younger readers.
Critical Evaluation: This is an engrossing and cinematic read. Sheinkin does a great job with pacing and dramatic tension, so that the story feels as much thriller as history book. It draws on in-depth research, as evidenced by the bibliography and quote attributions at the back of the book, although reviews and discussions at the time of publication criticize the book for limited discussion of the historical significance of events, for overplaying the significance of events like the Norwegian attack on the heavy water plant, and for not having enough information about source materials—basically, that the book prioritizes style over substance (Piedmont, 2013: Hunt et al, 2012). I can see that argument, but I think that this book’s readability, its potential to engage reluctant readers of nonfiction, outweigh its limitations and make this a go-to item for any YA library collection.
Creative Use for Library Program: I would include this book in displays focused on spying or World War II history. I would put it on a recommendation list to share with local high schools, for teachers who require students to read nonfiction as part of their independent reading. In the same spirit of promoting interest and awareness in nonfiction, I could imagine creating a nonfiction book club, “Stranger than Fiction,” and making this book one of the group reads.
Book Talk: In the shadow of a world-wide war, scientists across the globe are inching closer to discoveries that could create a weapon more destructive than any before. Following the advice of physicist Albert Einstein, the US President creates a secret program to work on building the first atomic bomb. At the same time, the Allied forces must use sabotage and spycraft to ensure that the Germans aren’t developing a bomb of their own—and one of those allies, the Soviet Union, sends in their own spies to try to steal the secrets of the American bomb project. This story has as much drama as a thriller novel, but it’s all based on documented history. For anyone wants their history with a dose of excitement, this is a story for you.
Potential Challenges and Defense: The majority of Bomb is focused on the race to develop the weapon, and the discussion of the destruction it caused in Japan, as well as the larger, existential threat posed by nuclear capability, is handled fairly quickly in the book’s final chapters. It’s possible that library users might voice criticisms similar to that of Piedmont’s review in School Library Journal—that this book doesn’t talk enough about the historical impact of the bomb’s development. In response to challenges, I would point to the use of reviews to select library materials (despite Silverman’s complaints, his overall assessment was positive), and to the fact that the book won the 2013 YALSA nonfiction award.
Why did I include this book? I love Steve Sheinkin! I think he sets the gold standard of narrative nonfiction for young people (although the absolute best, in my opinion, is M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead). I’ve consistently enjoyed Sheinkin’s books, since I first read Most Dangerous. I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading Bomb, though, and the combination of this assignment and Sheinkin being recognized with the Edwards Award this year made is seem like this was the right time to pick it up.
Goodreads (n.d.) Bomb: The race to build—and steal—the world’s most dangerous weapon [Webpage]. Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13170021-bomb?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=7ATPnJuhNm&rank=3
Hunt, J. et al (2012). Comments on Bomb: Johnathan’s Take [Web Log]. Retrieved from: http://blogs.slj.com/heavymedal/2012/10/25/bomb-jonathans-take/
Krause, D. (2012, September). Bomb: The race to build—and steal—the world’s most dangerous weapon [Review]. Retrieved from: https://www.booklistonline.com/Bomb-The-Race-to-Build-and-Steal-the-World-s-Most-Dangerous-Weapon-Steve-Sheinkin/pid=5573935
Piedmont, J. (2013, January 6). Bomb [Review]. School Library Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=bomb
Sheinkin, S. (2020). http://stevesheinkin.com/ [Website].
TeachingBooks.net (2020). Informational text complexity measures for Bomb: The race to build—and steal—the world’s most dangerous weapon by Steve Sheinkin [Webpage]. Retrieved from: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tcid=30842