The Secret Project

illus. by Jeanette Winter. 40p. further reading. S. & S./Beach Lane. Feb. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481469135.
RedReviewStarGr 4–8—This powerful, if somewhat unpolished, account traces the development and testing of the first atomic device—code-named the "Gadget"—in the New Mexico desert. The story begins in a "peaceful desert mountain landscape," with a "quiet little boys' school" that is abruptly emptied of students and transformed into a laboratory where "shadowy figures" labor over a "secret invention." Two years later, a massive device is hauled to another site and suspended from a tower for detonation. Though the author artfully heightens the air of mystery by leaving out specific names, dates, and locales, the sudden switch partway through from past to present tense serves no evident purpose, and the comment that the "great scientists must complete their secret invention before any other scientists complete their secret invention" is too vague to be meaningful. (The author adds missing details and a clarification in his lengthy closing note: the Nazis were rumored to have a similar project under way.) Taking a cue from the work of Georgia O'Keeffe (and actually adding the artist to one scene), the illustrator places buildings and people into a series of wide, undulating, semiabstract New Mexico settings, then closes with a bang that is both literal and emotionally gut-wrenching: a countdown, four hellish full-page views of an expanding mushroom cloud, and a pitch-black final spread. The author's note ends with a devout, if quixotic, wish that nuclear weapons will one day be abolished.
VERDICT A moving, nonpreachy springboard for older elementary grade and middle school discussions of the Manhattan Project or nuclear weapons in general—though educators will want to supplement with additional materials.

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