Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2013 Contenders: Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb is being talked up in many circles as perhaps the premiere nonfiction title of the year. Jonathan Hunt over at Heavy Medal has been a great champion of it, and a lot of other people agree with him.

Frankly, upon reading it, it's easy to see why. The fugue-like narrative braids three different story threads -- the American efforts to build the atomic bomb, the efforts by the Soviets to steal the designs, and the Allied attempts to keep the Germans from completing a bomb of their own -- and does so without sacrificing clarity or cohesion. It's a magnificent achievement, and one well worth praising.

A result of the narrative dexterity is that the book demands the reader's attention. I'm not the world's biggest WWII buff, but I still found that I couldn't stop reading until I'd finished Bomb. To me, that ability to draw in a reader who isn't a devotee of the topic is a hallmark of the best literary nonfiction. It's especially noteworthy that the book remains as intriguing when Robert Oppenheimer is brooding in his laboratory as it does during the commando raid on the heavy water plant in Norway. Sheinkin knows how to write action sequences, but he isn't dependent on them to keep the reader's interest -- an especially valuable skill in nonfiction, where one can't simply create an action sequence whenever one wants.

I had two possible issues with the book. One, which Nina Lindsay has covered in detail, is that, although Bomb is seriously well-researched, it's also awkwardly footnoted, and contains details that make one wonder whether they were actually present in the source material. The second is that, after reading it, I'm unsure as to how well it really fits into the Newbery age range. At best, it's for the very upper end of that range, but I think it probably slots more comfortably into the YA section. It's worth noting that Sheinkin's previous book, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, and I think that the discussions for that award -- or even for the Printz -- might be a more appropriate place for Bomb to be considered.

Regardless, however, Bomb is an excellent book, and well worth reading. I'm curious to see if the Newbery committee decides to give it some love.

Published in September by Flash Point / Roaring Brook


  1. I don't think this is one slots more comfortably into the YA section at all. This is a book for fourth grade and up. Why would you say this one is too old, but not, say, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS?

    1. For me, a lot of what pushes it up for me is its sheer complexity. Not only the complexity of the narrative structure, but the complexity of the themes -- allegiance, honesty, the shifting and uncertain definitions of what the "right" thing is -- it all seems to me like something that's more YA than J.

      I don't think I agree with the lower portion of the age range that the publisher provides, but I could certainly see at least some middle school readers being interested in this one. Do you think it's for a lower age range than THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD, or would you have rather seen the Newbery committee rather than the YALSA NF consider it too?

  2. But, Sam, those themes characterize much of the juvenile fantasy that's written. Is HARRY POTTER young adult? THE GOLDEN COMPASS? THE DARK IS RISING? Are these really all YA? I don't think so.

    NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD and BOMB probably have a similar readership. The latter is longer with more narrative threads woven together so most people will probably see it as older, but I don't think it will make much of a difference to the reader who is engrossed in the story.

    Because publishers don't really publish nonfiction for high school students (at least not in the same way that they designate some YA fiction for 14 and up or 16 and up), the YALSA Nonfiction Award finalists tend to skew to middle school, and since age is almost completely irrelevant in the nonfiction, there's nothing wrong with upper elementary students reading most of them, too.

    Case in point, HITLER YOUTH was published for ages 12 and up, but I have an upper elementary audience for the book at my schools. In fact, I've even had third grade GATE students check the book out.