The Plot in Five Sentences Or Less: In the 1940’s, America was at war, but its military was still segregated. Against this backdrop, fresh recruits arrive at Port Chicago outside of San Francisco. They are black men and, because of this, they are given the highly dangerous job of loading ammunition onto the ships with little to no safety training. On the evening of July 17, 1944 a huge explosion rips through the port, killing over 300 people. In the weeks following, 50 of the men refuse to load any more ammunition and are therefore put on trial for mutiny.
My Take: The Port Chicago 50 is not Steve Sheinkin’s most exciting book, but it is his most poignant. I found that the narrative slows down some during the trial portion of the story, but the final chapters more than make up for this. By the end of the book, I found that I had a knot in my throat as I considered the sacrifice that these black sailors made, really until the ends of their lives. The Port Chicago 50 is another example of Sheinkin’s gift of making history interesting and relevant. Highly recommended for ages 12+ looking for a non-fiction read concerning civil rights.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Steve’s brother-in-law Eric Person was the first to bring the story of the Port Chicago 50 to his attention. Eric mentioned the theory that the first atomic bomb was exploded not in the New Mexico desert in 1945, but rather a year earlier at Port Chicago. Intrigued, Steve dug deeper and unearthed the story of the Port Chicago 50.
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): The year is 1946 and 13 year old Jack Baker from Kansas is sent to the Morton Hall Academy for Boys in Maine after his mother dies and his father returns to the Navy. At his new school, Jack feels like an outsider but soon meets Early Auden, an eccentric boy who has a genius for such things as mathematics and small boat craft and is also constructing an elaborate story around the number pi. As their friendship develops, Jack learns that Early is also mourning his brother, who was reported dead in France in World War II. Over fall break, the two boys push off into the Kennebec River and go on a mysterious journey that will bring them closer to their lost loved ones.
My Take: From the midpoint of the book until the end, Vanderpool injects a strong dose of magical realism, involving such things as pirates, anthropomorphic bears, and a volcano. I was initially skeptical of these fantastical elements, but, towards the final chapters, I decided that the author had pulled it off. I would consider this a very special book that explores the mysteries of grief. There is a great deal of symbolism and meaning and Vanderpool draws heavily on fairy tale and archetypes to add depth to the narrative. I found Navigating Early to be a profound exploration of how we search for answers in our bereavement. (ages 12+)
One Interesting Note About the Author: Vanderpool researched Navigating Early by visiting Maine and exploring lighthouses, a boarding school, and even taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail. She did not see any bears.
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): Tipped off by European physicists in 1939 that it was possible to create an extraordinarily dangerous bomb, FDR signs the order which sets off the race to create this powerful weapon before the Nazis do. Brilliant physics professor Robert Oppenheimer puts together a team of world class talent and brings them to Los Alamos, New Mexico. Meanwhile, Russian agents scramble to cultivate spy connections to penetrate the military base and steal the secrets behind the atomic bomb design. Concerned that Nazis are ahead in the race to build the bomb, partisans attack a heavy water producing plant in Norway to to inhibit German efforts. The final chapters of the book cover the story of the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan and the devastating effects.
My Take: I was lucky enough to hear Steve Sheinkin speak at the Virginia Library Association’s Conference in Williamsburg, VA on September 27 when he accepted an award for this book. It is definitely well deserved. Bomb is tightly written and reads like a fiction thriller. I read it in probably two sittings and simply did not want it to end. My one critique of the book is its use of conversational dialogue throughout. I always question when historical non-fiction books use quotes: how do they know that they said exactly that? Still, this is a mild criticism for a wonderful book.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Steve Sheinkin started his career by editing and writing textbooks. Disenchanted with how many interesting stories that he had to leave out of the history books, he began writing history books for kids in which he could keep all of the fascinating odds and ends.