This week marks the 70th anniversary of a momentous time for the world. On Aug. 6, 1945, the US dropped the atomic (uranium) bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A few days later (Aug. 9), the US dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. Japan’s surrender was announced Aug. 15. The formal surrender ceremony took place on Sept. 2 (VJ Day/Victory Over Japan) on the deck of the USS Missouri, officially ending World War II.
It was one of those “best of times, worst of times.” Yes, the war was over. But the bombs brought unheard of deaths and destruction, as well as the ongoing threat of global nuclear destruction.
Here are 10 kids’ books that describe the building of the bombs and the end of the war.
1. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr (1977)–MG–Based on a real girl, this story is about Sadako Sasaki, who survived the Hiroshima bombing when she was two, but succumbed to leukemia, caused by the radiation, when she was twelve. Before she died, Sadako began to make 1,000 origami cranes in hopes of getting well. After her death, Japanese children led the movement to finish Sadako’s 1,000 cranes, and to build a monument to honor Sadako, other victims of the bombing, and to promote world peace.
2. Hiroshima: A Novella by Laurence Yep (1995)–MG–Twelve-year-old Sachi and her classmates were clearing away houses to make fire lanes in Hiroshima the morning the atomic bomb obliterated her city. Sachi was the only one of her classmates to survive, but suffered from debilitating and disfiguring burns. A few years later she is chosen for treatment in the United States where she overcomes her fears of the Americans.
3. Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac (2005)–MG/YA–Ned, a young Navajo boy, is taught at his boarding school that anything Indian is bad, but when WWII starts the US military wants the Navajo to use their language to foil the Japanese. Ned joins the Marines and helps the US win the war.
4. The Gadget by Paul Zindel (2001)–MG–Thirteen-year-old Stephen joins his father at Los Alamos where his father is working on a secret project that will end the war. But, when Stephen finds his dad distant and distracted, he teams up with his new friend, Alexei, to uncover the big secret. He learns that neither The Gadget nor Alexei are what he expects.
5. The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (2006)–MG/YA–The scientists at Los Alamos were allowed to have their families at the secret base. The children went to school, played with friends, and learned to live with very tight security measures. Two girls–Dewey, a young math and science genius, and Suze, an artist–become unlikely friends in an unlikely place.
6. Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki (1980)–Picture Book–This book was first published in Japan and was classified as non-fiction. The story dramatizes a family’s experience during and after the bombing in Hiroshima. Although the book is based on the facts of an actual family, it seems to have fictional elements. Perhaps it would be considered historical fiction if it were published now. However, this book handles the horror of a young girl’s experience in a sensitive and truthful way that young readers can understand and handle.
7. The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb by Edward T. Sullivan (2007)–MG/YA–Sullivan thoroughly describes the development of atomic research, the building of the atomic bombs used during WWII, and the involvement of key scientists and military leaders.
8. J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Brain Behind the Bomb by Glenn Scherer and Marty Fletcher (2008)–MG/YA–This biography about Oppenheimer also describes the discovery of fission, the need for the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the bombings, as well as Oppenheimer’s efforts to keep atomic weapons from being used again.
9. The Bomb by Steve Sheinkin (2012)–MG/YA–America and Britain, with help from German and Jewish scientists and Norwegian resistance fighters, successfully raced the Nazis in building the first atomic weapons. No longer needing the bombs to beat the Nazis, the US used them against the Japanese. However, the Soviets stole many of the secrets of the bombs, and the new atomic weapon race became one between the US and the Soviets. This book explains why the security measures described in The Green Glass Sea were necessary, but unsuccessful.
10. The Secret of the Manhattan Project by Doreen Gonzales (2012)–MG/YA–This book also details how scientists discovered fission, the political and human situations leading up to and continuing throughout the war, the urgency behind the U.S. creation of atomic weapons, how the weapons were used, and how the atomic age affects us now.
For more info:
What other kids books should I add to the list?
Last week a couple of my sons and I visited the Battleship South Dakota Memorial in Sioux Falls, SD (12th & Kiwanis Ave.). This state treasure is both a memorial and museum that showcases the WWII-era USS South Dakota (BB 57).
The ship was launched in June 1941, but still under construction when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. However, in August 1942, the battleship headed out to the South Pacific and was in battle within a couple of months.
During it’s WWII service, most of which was in the Pacific Theater, the USS South Dakota and it’s sailors were in so many battles and performed so well that it earned the most medals and awards of any other WWII American battleships.
The USS South Dakota was decommissioned after the war, and in the 1960s set for the scrapyard. But, a group of South Dakotans worked to save the ship. Although they weren’t able to save the whole thing, they were able to obtain parts of the ship that became the backbone for the memorial/museum in Sioux Falls. The museum also holds many photographs and mementoes donated by the ship’s sailors.
If you get a chance to go to the museum, watch the video which gives a good overview of the battleship and the memorial. And walk around the concrete outline of the ship to see some of her key pieces, like the mast, anchor, and one of her 16-inch guns.
Interesting facts about the USS South Dakota:
- The Sioux Falls, SD, Washington High School band performed at the June 7, 1941, launching ceremony in New Jersey.
- The USS South Dakota was also known as Battleship X, Old Nameless, and Sodak.
- Twelve-year-old Calvin Graham, the youngest medal-earning service member of WWII, served on the Sodak. As late as WWII, it was still fairly common for underage kids to lie about their age and join the military. There may have been more than 1,000 underage kids in the service.
- Ninety-five men died in action.
- The ship hosted multiple sports teams, including its own baseball team.
- The Sodak was the first American battleship to bombard a main Japanese island (July 14, 1945).
- The Sodak had several Kingfisher aircraft that were used for scouting and sea rescues. Since there was no runway for the Kingfishers to take off from, these planes were catapulted off the ship’s stern.
- The model of the ship was built as a type of prototype in the 1930s, before construction on the actual ship began.
For more info:
Since we’ve just celebrated America’s Independence Day, here’s a big shout-out to all those men and women who have served and died for our country, and especially to the men from the USS South Dakota!
What WWII memorials have you visited?
About a year ago I challenged myself to read all the winners of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and to blog about the history and writing lessons I learned from each book. At one book a month, this challenge will take me more than three years, but I’m about one-third of the way to my goal.
This month’s book is the newest winner (named in February 2015): Dash, written by Kirby Larson.
After the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Mitsi’s best friend Dash, her dog, is her only friend, until she meets a new neighbor, Mrs. Bowker. Mitsi wants life to get back to normal, but soon the government declares that she, her family, and the rest of the Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast must leave their homes for relocation camps. To make things worse, Mitsi is not allowed to bring Dash with her.
Relocation: I was somewhat familiar with the incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the U.S. during WWII. However, it was eye-opening to see the camps through Mitsi’s eyes. For example, housing was terrible–some families lived in old horse stables.
However, Larson also showed how brave some of the Nikkei (those with Japanese ancestry) were, how they tried to establish a normalcy (schools, newspapers, landscaping), and how they looked out for each other. I was also thankful to see, again through Mitsi’s eyes, that some Americans remained loyal to the imprisoned Nikkei and tried to help them.
Author’s note and acknowledgements: I’ve said it before that I love it when historical fiction authors include an author’s note detailing historical context and additional information. In Larson’s, she reveals her novel was based on a factual Mitsi (Mitsue Shiraishi), who although an adult during WWII, was separated from her dog, Chubby.
Then, in her acknowledgement page, Larson included a website by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, which provides lots of information, first-hand accounts, as well as suggestions for educators. The website also included a terminology section which was very helpful to me, because sometimes official vocabulary used at the time of an event is not accurate. So I learned why, and with what, some of the old terminology should be replaced.
For example, during WWII, the places the Nikkei were sent were called Internment Camps. But, according to Densho, internment is a term for imprisoning non-citizens during wartime. However, two-thirds of the Nikkei “interned” were American citizens. The camps are more accurately named incarceration/prison/concentration camps.
Plot Twist: This is trickier to talk about because I do not give away spoilers. But, there is a plot twist near the end of a story done so well I can think back and recall the trail of clues.
Since I’ve been studying and writing fiction, I can often predict a book or movie ending. However, Larson surprised me. How? She planted clues throughout earlier parts of the novel that suggested one thing, but ended up meaning something different. I can’t say anything more!
Author’s Note/Acknowledgement Page: Not only did Larson tell how she learned factual Mitsi’s story, but Larson also wrote about how Mitsi’s story made her think how she hates to be apart from her dog, Winston. This led to her wondering how difficult it would have been for Nikkei children who were separated from their beloved pets. Those thoughts led to Dash.
Therefore, when I’m developing story ideas, I should ask myself “what if”-type questions, such as how would this situation impact a child? How would I respond?
Finally, Larson thanked people who helped her with her research. It is confirmation to me to keep asking for help. People often go out of their way to aid researchers and writers share stories that need to be told to the next generation. In fact, Larson has agreed to help me! Join us next Tuesday for an author interview (and a book and swag giveaway) with Kirby Larson about Dash!
Larson is also the author of other historical fiction for children, including Hattie Big Sky (a Newbery Honor book), Hattie Ever After, The Friendship Doll, Dear America: The Fences Between Us, and Duke. For more info about Larson, see her website.
For another Scott O’Dell Award winner about a Japanese American WWII experience, see my post about Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.
Have you been separated from a pet for a lengthy time? How did you cope? What other children’s books about the WWII Japanese American experience can you recommend? As historical fiction writers, especially for children, how do we include the vocabulary of the past, yet be honest and respectful?
I’m on a three-year personal challenge to read and report history and story lessons from all the books that earned the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. This month I read The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, the 2007 winner.
The Green Glass Sea is set during World War II at the secret military installation, then known as The Hill, now known as Los Alamos. This is one of the places where scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb. The story follows two 11-year-old girls, children of scientists, who live at The Hill.
Many of the civilian scientists had their families with them on The Hill. The kids didn’t know what their parents were working on, but they knew everything was very secret, and they couldn’t tell anyone. Even letters to their grandparents went through censors. Plus, their community didn’t officially exist. It wasn’t on the map, and all mail went through a P.O. Box. In the book, one high school senior has trouble getting accepted into college because the school he attended was top secret.
The kids on The Hill tried to have a normal life in a very unusual place. However, these were scientists’ kids. They weren’t average. The two girls in The Green Glass Sea were both extremely bright, but in very different ways.
One of the things that I thought was odd at first was the extreme reaction of the kids when they learned of President Roosevelt’s death. But one of the girls points out that she had never known anyone else as president. And they heard him all the time on the radio. I suppose children of the 1940s would’ve felt like they knew FDR; he was their friend, or even a pseudo grandparent. And since he was leading the nation in a giant battle against the Axis Powers, they might’ve wondered how life could go on.
The Green Glass Sea taught me about compelling beginnings and interesting characters.
In the beginning, we meet Dewey, who is waiting for her father to come for her, but a military woman comes, picks her up, and takes her to the train station. So there is tension right away because her dad doesn’t come, and she doesn’t know where she’s going.
Then bit by bit, we find out Dewey had been living with a grandmother, who had a stroke and was institutionalized, and was then staying with a rather uncaring neighbor. In addition, Dewey is an interesting girl who likes order and wants to know what to expect, and she keeps getting put into situations where she doesn’t know what’s going on. I felt sympathetic early on. Then, on Dewey’s trip, we see her personality and the positive ways she copes with change.
This leads right into my character lesson: The Green Glass Sea has two point-of-views. I liked Dewey so much I was a little resentful when the POV switched the first time, but I quickly found Suze interesting. Suze is not always likable–she sometimes acted mean–but readers can relate to her because she wants to be included by the other kids. And both Dewey and Suze are unusual. Dewey excels in math and mechanics, and Suze is very artistic.
Both girls change during the course of the book. Dewey has to deal with the worst circumstances, and she grows, but in a quiet, internal way. Suze grows internally, too, but she has the biggest change of heart and actions.
A heads up for teachers and parents: the language in this book is stronger than in many middle grade books. And the adults drink and smoke quite a bit, with few repercussions. Accurate for the time period, and yet minimized compared to real life–just something I want you to be aware of.
For more information about life on The Hill and other secret installations involved in developing the atomic bombs:
Finally, here is Ellen Klages’ website.
Join me Nov. 25 as I look at the very different experiences of other children during WWII in the 1995 winner, Under The Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.
What are some other real-life unusual places children have grown up in? What kids’ books have beginnings that hooked you in the first couple pages? What child protagonists have you found interesting and relatable, even if he or she wasn’t always likable?