I was excited to get my hands on The Secret Project. Who could resist that mysterious cover? And I love nonfiction picture books that interpret tough moments in history for kids. What could be a tougher moment to interpret than the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb?
The book is gorgeous and carefully composed. But it totally surprised me. I expected it to be a biography of the scientists who worked to create the atomic bomb. I expected it to explain why creating the atomic bomb seemed important at the time and why some of those scientists have, in the years since then, come to have deeply conflicted feelings about what they created.
But the book doesn’t do that. In fact, the scientists are never individualized or named. In the illustrations, they remain silhouettes, figures always in the shadows or in darkness. One illustration about their “research on a metal called uranium…and research on a metal called plutonium” shows diagrams of atoms and firework-like blasts inside the outline of a head.
While the scientists remain shadowy, the people around them are full color and individualized. We see children at school, a landscape artist painting, a Native craftsman carving, even Los Alamos support staff arriving at the facility “to cook, to clean, to guard.” We see New Mexico locals in their colorful clothes on the roadway toward Los Alamos and in the town square. Ultimately, this book is not about the scientists who created the atomic bomb but about how that invention changed the world for everyday people.
The conclusion of the book is dramatic and sobering. We see silhouetted scientists crouching in a bunker and then turn to a spread that is simply words, counting down from ten.
The next two spreads show the violent red and yellow mushroom cloud growing and expanding, and the final spread of the book is simply blackness.
It’s a beautifully illustrated book, but has very serious content. I don’t think it’s a book to hand to a kid to read on his or her own, but it’s definitely a book worth sharing with children–especially older ones–and one that might prompt a lot of discussions with caring grown-ups about America’s past and about unintended consequences.
The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane Books: 2017.
I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.