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Three nonfiction books

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin    Claudette Colvin    marching for freedom

Bomb: the Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Claudette Colvin by Phillip Hoose

Marching For Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge

Acclaimed author Jean Fritz, innovator in children’s nonfiction (and biography in particular), has said: “Children don’t need a perfect picture. They need to see what human nature is, that history is made of the same stuff as our lives.” How do the nonfiction books on our list this week stand up to this charge? How well do they stand up to your expectations for nonfiction?

Additionally, feel free to comment on how the books with a civil-rights focus relate to one another and might work together in a thematic unit.

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Nicole Shelpman says:

    I read Bomb and Claudette Colvin, and both of these books effectively show that events in history are more complex than they appear on the surface. Events do not just happen; they result from decisions and actions made by multiple individuals within a specific political and social climate.

    Bomb completely surpassed my expectations for nonfiction. I had no idea how many individuals were involved, in one way or another, in creating the atomic bomb. Rather than just recording who those people were and what they did, Sheinkin presents them as individuals and draws the reader into the dilemmas that they were facing. Through the story of several individuals, especially of Oppenheimer, Sheinkin illustrates an important lesson that is difficult to learn – decisions we make today will have unforeseen, and possibly disastrous, consequences in the future. Oppenheimer, like many of the other scientists involved, began his work on the atomic bomb because he wanted to help stop Hitler during World War II. By the time he realized the full consequences of his work, it was too late; despite his efforts to convince the country’s leaders to halt production of atomic bombs, the U.S. continued to make more destructive weapons. Reading about these events in a text book may have enabled me to learn the same facts about this period, but it would not have created the emotional response that this book did. By the end of the book, I was incredibly saddened by the outcome of these scientific and political efforts that stemmed from noble beginnings.

    Claudette Colvin is also an engaging piece of nonfiction, and I enjoyed hearing Claudette’s voice interspersed within the narration. The most powerful lesson from this book is that history is not at all objective; some stories get told while others do not. I think that this is an extremely important lesson that is not always explicitly taught in schools. This book would be an excellent addition to a Civil Rights unit, especially one including other nonfiction texts about the bus boycott that omit Claudette’s role in the events. The stories that get passed on through history tend to be condensed and lose many of the details about challenges that had to be overcome. Before reading this book, I knew of Rosa Parks and of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but I did not know about all of the people and court cases that were involved in this movement. I think it is important to help students understand that change does not happen easily, but only through the combined efforts of many individuals; when we summarize or condense history, this lesson can be lost, and a book like Claudette Colvin can help remind us that behind any historical event, there are untold stories about other people who played an instrumental role.

  2. Sophie Barnes says:

    Bomb is an amazing nonfiction novel that brilliantly combines history, science, and a compelling story. The bomb was always an abstract concept for me, but this novel brought the bomb, and the debate surrounding it, to life. The novel uses history as a backdrop to discuss important themes, moral dilemmas, and questions of human nature. The major themes are still relevant today, and these moral dilemmas still exist. When Oppenheimer realizes the magnitude of what he created and its devastating effects, he starts to think about the morals of power and destruction, and the reader gets to follow him in this thought process. Just because you can create something, it does not mean that you should, but that is a very difficult line to draw. It forced me to think about collateral damage, the goals of war, and the distribution and acquisition of power. The bomb became a very poignant symbol of much more than war and the feat of scientists, it represented power, destruction, and the creation of something that almost feels too big and powerful for human nature and discretion.

    After the creation of the initial bomb, the process quickly spun out of Oppenheimer’s control when the government demanded bigger, more destructive bombs. This is a backdrop for the novel’s commentary about what happens when an individual stands up to or goes against the majority group. Oppenheimer’s power is tied to that group and although he created the bomb, he does not have any control over it. When Oppenheimer tries to prevent the creation of more weapons, he loses his security clearance and role in the government. The identity development and characterization of Oppenheimer allowed the reader to get inside his head. It forced me to grapple with and develop my own stance on the bomb development and use. Perhaps that was one of the goals, because in the end Sheinkin points out that we are all part of the story.

  3. Nicole Eslinger says:

    Bomb is a really fantastic book that, like Nicole and Sophie have mentioned, brought the story of the atomic bomb to life. Although I am not typically fond of non-fiction, reading this book was an experience unlike any that I have had before. Bomb turns historical figures into real characters and provides insight not only into the way that history unfolded, but more importantly into why it did.

    I thought that the photographs included in the book were great as well. As I was reading, I found myself flipping back to look at the pictures of characters as they were introduced. I also felt that the structure of the book contributed to the fast-paced theme of the content. Jumping from one story or character to another between the short chapters gives the reader a sense of urgency or rushing. I think that this structure would also serve to capture the attention of young readers.

    Pior to reading this book, the atomic bomb was really a far away concept to me. I never wondered about the process of how we came to discover or want them. However, this book really brings everything into perspective.

  4. Kara Brennan says:

    As someone who was standing in whatever corner was farthest away from “I often read non-fiction for fun” that first day in class, it was a little difficult for me to get into. I learned a LOT from the story, since I knew only the bare facts about the bomb beforehand, but I didn’t feel absorbed in the story like other commenters, and WWII buffs that I know who loved it. I think that I gear more towards personal stories wrapped up in a non-fiction story, more like Code Name Verity. But I did really enjoy reading about the moral dilemmas in creating such a massive thing, and learning about the incredible number of people who were involved in the project. That is so eye opening after basically just learning that the bomb went off and that it affected a lot of lives after that happened when I was growing up. It certainly puts the event into perspective.

    And learning about Claudette Colvin was also incredibly interesting to me, especially since I had never even heard of her. I hadn’t even thought about how Rosa Parks was “chosen” to be the face of this movement. I always thought about it as a spontaneous event, rather than a calculated choice of who was going to take a stand. It was also fascinating to put Claudette’s life into this time period, and to think about how different everything would have been, for her and US history, if she had been the face of this movement. I also liked reading about the ups and downs in her life, since I feel like history class often paints a very whitewashed, idyllic picture of past events. The details in this book make her come alive as a real person, rather than a one dimensional historical figure.

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