Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. 2012. Steve Sheinkin. New York: Roaring Book Press.
Genre: Informational chapter book
Grade Levels: 5 and up
Features: Historic information; vintage photos, letters; resource list for further research; source notes; quotation notes; index.
266 pages (including end matter)
Steve Sheinkin is a writer of many talents. He knows how to write award-winning books. Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, have earned high praise and honors—National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor, to just begin the list. And he also knows how to title his books to make them practically leap off the “shelf” into the hands of anxious readers. Whether you prefer to access books electronically or traditionally, you know, old school with bound paper pages, Mr. Sheinkin’s titles alone are enough to entice readers to grab or click and jump in. (More to come below on titles.) That’s no small skill for an author of non-fiction histories. This is especially true in light of the Common Core State Standards pushing teachers and students towards more informational reading and writing.
For many student readers, informational reading, especially in history, is a turn-off (I won’t use the word boring, a word that was banned from our house to keep our son from using it as a crutch). For many teachers and students, their experiences with informational texts and textbooks have been less than positive—dry, encyclopedic mounds of lifeless facts, dates, places, etc. Author Sheinkin, in his bio on Bomb’s slip cover, after admitting to being a former textbook writer, states his intention to “dedicate his life to making up for previous crimes by crafting gripping narratives of American history.” Fortunately for teachers and students, he is doing just that. His recent book, Bomb, delivers on all fronts–an exciting title and a well crafted, informative, and engagingly “gripping narrative” history.
What Mr. Sheinkin understands is the importance of story. Cognitive scientist Mark Turner explains in his 1996 book The Literary Mind, “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought…It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining.” History is stories. Science is stories. Mathematics is stories. In A Whole New Mind (2005), Daniel Pink emphasizes it this way, “Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” I think educators have to be careful to avoid pitting narrative writing against informational writing, or reading works of fiction against non-fiction content. I don’t see them as being separate and discrete elements of literacy. Stories provide the context to determine the value of information, to sort, categorize, and remember. What do classroom teachers do then, to make sense of the CCSS emphasis on informational/expository reading and writing? Strike a balance. Don’t abandon one to serve the other. Help students to access reading that is motivating to help them develop the desire and the tenacity to tackle content—narrative and informational—that may be more complex. Continue teaching, practicing, and building skill in narrative writing because of its connections to building skill in informational, expository, and persuasive writing. Adopting the CCSS does not mean scrapping common sense. (To learn more about the value of narrative writing, including some myth busting, be sure to check out Vicki’s post from June 25, 2012, Dissecting and Defending Narrative Writing via the Common Core.)
So how does Steve Sheinkin begin his thrilling history—from discovery to deployment—of the atomic bomb? With the story, of course! And what a story it is! Scientists (Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein), spies, double agents, secret governmental agencies, super secret missions, world leaders (Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler), American presidents (Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman), plots and counter plots, and more! This book is a history lesson, well researched, complete with all the names, dates, events, and locations told with a storyteller’s eye and ear for detail and audience.
In the Classroom
1. Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You could select chapters or passages to share aloud to build excitement for independent reading or make connections to supplement a history text. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud or a book study where each student has a copy—and it would work well for either, I would recommend devoting a flip-chart page or part of a bulletin board to helping students keep track of all the important figures. There are a lot of “characters.” You could even keep three charts—one to follow the American development of the bomb, one for the Russian efforts to steal the bomb’s technology, and one for the people involved in sabotaging the German scientists attempting to build a bomb for their side. I would involve students in researching/finding images of each player to copy and post on the charts. This could be done as a hierarchical organizational chart to show the connections between each person, government, or agency. There are b/w photos of the key figures, included at the beginning of each of the book’s four sections. Each photo includes the subject’s name and brief identifying information—e.g. Harry Truman U.S. President 1945-1953. These could be shown to students using a document camera and serve as models for the students during their research.
2. Historic background. What do your students know about World War II—the leaders and countries involved, how the U.S. became involved, or how it ended? Is it an area of interest for any of them? Do any of them have relatives who fought or were involved in the war? The level of background information may, of course, depend on the age/grade of your students. They don’t need to know everything—this isn’t a complete history of the war—but a few key details will help students understand the urgency felt by the United States to direct and affect the war’s outcome. Science, especially physics and chemistry, is at the heart of this story. Are some of your students interested in a specific area of science? What do they know about the study of physics or chemistry? You don’t have to be a physicist or chemist, but you can be a guide to helping them find out what scientists in these fields do. This may help them begin to look for answers to the question—How does a college physics professor in Berkeley, California, end up working on a top secret project to develop the weapon that will be used to end World War II and change the world for all of us?
3. Images/Stereotypes. Popular culture, especially television and movies, has often guided our images of science and scientists and even the role of science in our world. The Nutty Professor, The Absent Minded Professor, Frankenstein, Gilligan’s Island, Bill Nye The Science Guy, and more recently, The Big Bang Theory, Ironman, CSI, Bones, and Breaking Bad. What are your students’ images of science/scientists? The nerdy or evil genius? The oddball crackpot? The suave jetsetter with the cool toys? The shy lab rat in the white coat? Have any of these stereotypes affected their interest in science? What are your students’ experiences with stereotypes each day at school?
4. Details/Purpose/Audience. One of the most striking things about Steve Sheinkin’s book is how much readers learn about physics and chemistry without being overwhelmed with theories, laws, processes, and terminology. I wouldn’t call it “Science Lite”—the author is not dumbing anything down for readers. He has chosen a level of detail that matches his purpose for writing, and his awareness of his audience. Discuss the concept of audience with your students. Why is it important, as a writer, to know and write for your audience? Who was the last audience they may have written for? How did that knowledge affect their writing (pre-writing, research, narrowing of topic, etc.)?
5. Becoming an “Expert.” Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are experts on their topics. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they discover the writer is posing as an expert? Spend some time with your students looking at the Source Notes, Quotation Notes, and Acknowledgments sections at the back of the book. What do these sections suggest to students about the expertise of Steve Sheinkin? This would also be a good time to talk about the differences between primary and secondary sources. Why is it important in a book like this to seek out so many primary sources?
6. Book Titles and Grabbing the Audience. I mentioned earlier that one of the author’s skills was the way his books are titled. How does a book’s title demonstrate the author’s audience awareness? Do titles make a difference in a book’s initial appeal? (What if Louis Sachar’s award winning book, Holes, had been titled Some Kids in the Desert With Shovels?) Are titles important to readers? How do they help our minds begin to ask questions, make predictions, or know what to focus on? Have your students identify what they see as the key words (words that grabbed their interest/attention) in the title, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. I recently asked a sixth grade student I’m working with to do just this before knowing anything else about the direction of the book. She highlighted bomb, race, steal, and dangerous. She then made a prediction about the book focused on the words race and steal. This student thought that the race could be against time and/or against others. The word steal made her think that race was “…so important that someone would cheat in a very sneaky way to win.” This is a kind of concept formation practice—setting our thinking in motion prior to reading.
7. Organization. Ask your students to describe the overall organizational pattern of the book. Yes, it’s chronological, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a prologue, epilogue, and four main parts dividing the chapters. The author has chosen to begin his story at the end, with the arrest of Harry Gold, an American man the Soviets were using as a spy. How does this choice create interest for readers? What questions does it spark in the minds of curious readers? You could have your students begin a timeline with Harry Gold’s arrest in 1950, knowing they will have to jump back in time as the rest of the story begins to unfold in the first chapter. It is 1934 when readers meet young scientist Robert Oppenheimer in the book’s first chapter. The timeline and organizational chart suggested earlier could be added to as the story progresses. Students could not only keep track of the “characters” but how they are involved in the events of the story.
8. Voice. How would your students describe the voice of this book? Is it encyclopedic? The voice of a history professor lecturing to students? The voice of a scientist speaking to colleagues? Passionate? Knowledgeable? Biased? Professional? Come up with your own list of words—and discuss the kind of voice you (and they) feel is appropriate or effective in an informational piece. Is there a connection between finding that appropriate/effective voice and being an expert on your topic?
9. Sentence Fluency/Dialogue/Voice. As a writer, if you are going to tell an exciting story filled with characters, from heroic to villainous, you need to have these characters interacting through dialogue. Readers will feel more involved with your story and connected with your characters. But what if your story is about a real historical event involving real people? How do we know what historical figures said to one another? Bomb is filled with dialogue between scientists, spies, generals, soldiers, and presidents. So what did Steve Sheinkin do to get his “characters” talking? Research! And lots of it! Check out the Quotation Notes section to help students understand, again, the importance of the writer as topic expert. Have students take roles and read sections aloud (try the Prologue) to see, hear, and feel how the dialogue helps readers identify, understand, and connect to each character. Is it appropriate to approximate, after extensive research, what historical figures might have said in various situations, if no actual record exists? What is the difference between historical writing and historical fiction?
10. Modern Devices/Secret Codes. A great deal of Bomb’s story is about communication—face to face, in letters, radio transmissions, coded notes, etc. Today’s students are used to communicating instantly with a variety of personal electronic devices and through various forms of social media (My old man is showing, but I’m uneasy with using the word social when a great deal of this type of interaction is not about meeting people face to face.) How many of your students have written/received actual letters? What is the difference, in their minds, between receiving a text and a letter? What is their preferred method of communicating with friends? Parents? How would the use of modern communication devices—computers, email, cell phones, etc.—have altered the events of Bomb? Are secrets harder to keep now? Are people, in general, less private? The spies in the book communicated through coded messages. Have any of your students ever developed or used their own secret code? (Some of your students might be interested in researching the Navajo code talkers used during World War II.)
11. Argument. Engage your students in discussion and writing about one or more of the topics below (or generate some of your own). Discussion is a great form of pre-writing and will help suggest the level of research needed to become “experts” as they begin writing.
- The role of science in our world today
- How the development and deployment of the atomic bomb changed the world
- Nuclear weapon technology is crucial to national security
- Other ideas _______________
12. Other Models. The more students are exposed to lively informational writing, grounded in story (narrative), the easier it will be for them to write in a similar fashion. Narrative writing is more than beginning, middle, and end. Informational writing is about more than a mountain of information. Besides books like Bomb, one of my favorite sources/resources for this blend of narrative informational writing is National Geographic magazine. Each issue is filled great with writing and, as a bonus, amazing photography. The April 2013 issue, for example, has a thought-provoking article about the scientific possibilities and environmental implications of de-extinction—reviving currently extinct species. The article is exciting science and history, and it’s a model of the kind of informational writing that begs to be read.
To find out more about Steve Sheinkin and his books, visit stevesheinkin.com
Coming up on Gurus . . .
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