The Classroom Bookshelf
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2013 Sibert Medal, YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, Newbery Honor: Bomb

Bomb: The Race to Build –and Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
by Steve Sheinkin
2012, Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan
ISBN: 978-1-59643-487-5
Grades 6 and Up
Book Review
“It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.” What story, you may ask? The story of “how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet.” But it’s another story as well, the story of “one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure.” It is with these words that author Steve Sheinkin concludes Bomb, leaving his middle grade and teen readers with the contradictions of history: how people can be at their best and still manage to destroy beloved people and places; how one group’s success can be another’s failure; and, how, on this small planet, we ultimately share the same story. Bomb is a careful balancing act with three plot lines running concurrently: American attempts to build an atom bomb;  the Russians’ attempt to steal American research on the bomb; and America’s efforts to foil German research on the bomb. Sheinkin keeps all three narratives humming along with fast-paced chapters that end in suspense, propelling the reader to move on to the next. Extensive dialogue drawn from primary source documents allows men and women from the 1930-1940s to come alive. There is intrigue enough for all of your students, as they read about American, German, and Soviet spies, scientists from around the world, and every day Americans caught up in an extraordinary experiment at an extraordinary moment in human history. Ideal as a whole class or small group read, Bomballows your students to examine the past from multiple perspectives, contemplate the nature of scientific inquiry, and consider the possibilities and the consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in our present and our future; it is also an ideal mentor text for writing engaging nonfiction narrative.

 

Teaching Ideas and Classroom Invitations
  • Duet: Sheinkin’s Style. Have half of your class read Bomb and half read Sheinkin’s 2011 biography The Notorious Benedict Arnold (see this Classroom Bookshelf entry for the book) in a Duet Model. Each reads like an action movie or a detective story, with short chapters, each no longer than 6-7 pages, which keeps the narrative moving and the suspense growing. Why, as readers, as we experiencing such tension, when we mostly know how it turns out? Have your students explore how the chapters start and close. How are mood shifts and cliffhangers used effectively to propel each narrative? In small groups, have your students research a historical topic or figure and write up their research modeling their work on Sheinkin’s style, using short chapters or sections and cliff-hanger endings.
  • Illustrating Bomb. Unlike many young adult nonfiction chapter books, Bomb is not heavily illustrated. There are few visuals to guide the reader towards greater understanding. Have your students compare and contrast the format of Bomb to other young adult nonfiction titles in your school or classroom library. Next, have them consider what would they add to Bomb. Assign your students subtopics to research in small groups, and have them use some of the digital resources below, as well as ones they find on their own, to locate a wide array of visuals. Some students might decide to create charts or graphs to help facilitate understanding of important concepts or sequences of events. Have each group determine what illustrations (photographs, documents, charts & graphs) they would add to particular pages, and then put them into jigsaw groups to share with one another. 
  • Balancing Primary and Secondary Sources. To research this book, Sheinkin had to explore a great range of primary and secondary source material, from full-length books on the making of the bomb to testimony from trials and hearings to declassified FBI interview. The fast-paced, engaging narrative depends on the facts and context provided by the secondary source material, but also on the vividness of the quotes from the primary source material. Even his Source Notes reveal this careful layering. They are presented in the following categories: Bomb Race Sources, Character Sources, and Primary Sources. Have your students research an event from history, and require them to use the format that Sheinkin uses in his Source Notes, so that they understand they need to represent their human subjects in a multidimensional way.
  • Spies. What do we know about “spies” today? What is it like to work for the Central Intelligence Agency? Do we really know what people are doing in the name of the United States? Have your students do some reading to uncover the “reality” of undercover work in the 21stcentury. Compare their findings to images of spies, both past and present, in pop culture.
  • Nuclear Energy. With each new scientific discovery, we have to weigh the benefits and drawbacks. As Bomb states, when the Trinity test was successful, Oppenheimer thought of a quote from Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (p. 185). Is nuclear energy a good thing? Is it safe? What are the environmental costs of nuclear energy compared to the environmental costs of coal, natural gas, and oil? What about solar and wind energy? What makes sense in terms of future investment? What are some of the lessons we have learned (or have yet to learn) from the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan?
  • World War II Discoveries. When the military develops technology that can be used by the public for other purposes, they refer to it as “spin off” technology. Besides nuclear energy, what are some of the other scientific and technological discoveries and innovations that took place during World War II that we utilize in our everyday lives? Have your students conduct their research and compare and contrast their discoveries.
Critical Literacy
  • Nuclear Bombs Today. While Bomb focuses on the race to build the first atomic bomb, as Sheinkin makes clear at the end of the book, developing weapons is still big news. Just this month, North Korea ran an underground test of a nuclear bomb. Have students use digital databases available through your state or district library to research current efforts by Iran to build a nuclear weapon; previous attempts by the United States and the United Nations to limit the proliferation of weapons; and the state of relations between India and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear weapons. Who has the right to nuclear weapons? Who doesn’t? Who gets to decide? Why? What voices have been the most powerful in the debate? Can the United Nations control the efforts of any one nation?  Do students know what current US is? Have students write their own op-ed pieces, conduct a formal debate on the issue, or use what they have learned to try and shape public policy by meeting with district staff from the office of your Member of Congress or Senator.
  • Multiple Perspectives. On the jacket flap, Sheinkin refers to himself as a “story detective.” Doing research often feels like detective work, which is one way to get students excited about engaging in real world explorations. Within Bomb, Sheinkin specifically balances three narrative strands: America’s efforts to build the bomb, America’s efforts to impede the German’s attempts to build the bomb, and the Soviet’s efforts to steal the bomb research from the Americans or the Germans. But often times, we ask students to consider events only from the point-of-view of the United States. Have your students become story detectives, researching a single event from World War II from a variety of perspectives to examine the event from an international, interconnected, context. How does their understanding of the event change when they look it at from these varied perspectives? You could also modify this activity by having students research a current issue or current event from these multiple, international perspectives.
  • Explore World War II. There are many books of fiction and nonfiction to represent different global perspectives and points-of-view from World War II. Unlike the above activity, which has students research one event from multiple perspectives, have your students examine the war from one specific group’s perspective. Allow your students to select the perspective they would like to focus on, such as: citizens on the homefront, soldiers, European rescuers of Holocaust victims, Holocaust survivors, elected officials, scientists, spies, etc. Within those groups, allow students to read self-selected fiction and nonfiction about the time period and explore digital texts, including primary source documents, videos, newspapers, etc. What connections do students see between the people during World War II and people today? What new pressures exist? What pressures have faded away? If possible, interview members of the community who may have immigrated to the United States since the war or who experienced the war in the United States or as a soldier or nurse. Using what they have learned, have students create multi-genre “portraits” of the group they studied to share with one another. Have an evening when members of the community are invited in to explore student work and learn about their findings. When the evening is over, make sure that students have a chance to share their reactions to the experience, and to compare and contrast the points-of-view represented across the different groups. How has it changed their understanding of power relationships within this time frame? How did the perspective of another group change how they understood the group they researched?
Further Explorations
Digital
Steve Sheinkin’s Webpage

Part 3 On Common Core: Making the Text Connection (with author Steve Sheinkin and Classroom Bookshelf author Mary Ann Cappiello) 
 
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Voices of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos Historical Society
The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Institute
FDR Papers and Creation of Manhattan Project
US Central Intelligence Agency
History of US Intelligence, US Central Intelligence Agency
Clandestine Women: Spies in American History, National Women’s History Museum
“Spies Who Spilled Atomic Bomb Secrets, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009
International Spy Museum
Nuclear Weapons, “Topics of the Times,” New York Times
North Korea’s Nuclear Program, “Topics of the Times,” New York Times
Iran’s Nuclear Program, “Topics of the Times,” New York Times
Nuclear Energy, “Topics of the Times,” New York Times
Teaching the Cold War with the New York Times
World War II, “Topics of the Times,” New York Times
Books
Benoit, P. (2012). The nuclear age. Cornerstones of Freedom series. New York: Children’s Press. 
Delano, M. F. (2005). Genius: A photobiography of Albert Einstein. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Gonzalez, D. (2012). The secret of the Manhattan Project. Stories from American History series. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow.
Klages, E. (2006). The green glass sea. New York: Viking.
Krull, K. (2009). Albert Einstein. Giants of Science series. Ill. by Boris Kulikov. New York: Vikin.
Sullivan, E. (2007). The ultimate weapon: The race to develop the atomic bomb. New York: Holiday House.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.

Comments

  1. This is an excellent book and I love all the insight, activities and project ideas that you share. Well done. You are my new favorite Blog!!!
    Keep up the good work.

  2. There is also a literature unit based on this book for teachers. It is geared toward high school English or social studies classes and is based on Common Core standards. It can be found at Curriculum Aids or on Amazon.

  3. Im leading a book group discussion this Friday with my son's 6th grade class…this has been very helpful. Thank you.