Patrick J.'s Reviews > The Secret Project

The Secret Project by Jonah Winter
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it was amazing
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Reading for the 2nd time. Most recently started May 19, 2017.

Because Debbie Reese's rather uncharitable and inaccurate review appears to be influencing other reviewers and dragging down the rating of this extraordinary and powerful book, I feel that I must respond to it directly.

Reese argues that the book erases Native peoples, particularly the Pueblo Indians who lived in the area. She begins by noting that "[t]he boys shown [at the Los Alamos Ranch School] are definitely not from the communities of northern New Mexico at that time." Is this a criticism or merely a description? Reese might not like it, but the boys in the illustrations look like the boys who actually attended that school. See for yourself:

Now look at Winter's illustrations: close enough? I should say so.

But Reese says that her "real problem" is that the book implies that there is "nothing" around the school. First, there wasn't much in the immediate surroundings: The school was a ranch, and ranches tend to occupy huge tracts of land - for the purposes of, um, ranching. Should the illustrator cram in a few adobe houses at the margins to satisfy Reese? If Reese has pictorial evidence that the Winters deliberately erased Pueblo buildings, she should present it instead of making a baseless assertion. Second, the pages that follow this clearly show that the school was near a town (Sante Fe) filled with what look to me like Native people. So clearly there is something "around" the school, close enough for the scientists to visit.

Next Reese deliberately misreads Winter's claim that "nobody knows they [the scientists] are there," which again, she claims, erases the people who lived there. She claims that the people near the school knew "it" [the school] was there. Of course they did, but that's not what Winter writes. He says nobody knew "they" (the scientists) were there. Now, as for "nobody," Winter is clearly referring to everyone outside the laboratory, as the sentence explicitly states, not "citizens of the world minus those who lived there." The only people who must have known the men were there were the people who were hired to cook, clean, and guard, who are mentioned on the previous page. And they're not "outside the laboratory." Now, were they Native people? Some of them certainly appear to be illustrated to look that way.

The Winters are not erasing anybody but the scientists themselves. This is the most deliberate and most brilliant erasure in the book: the scientists, who are normally valorized or at least not held to account for their activities. Tucked away in a school house - no longer the bright boys who played and learned as students but dark, anonymous, vaguely sinister, grown-up students, each of them a travesty of the stereotypically benign figure of the good student harmlessly pursuing knowledge for its own sake - these scientists are "students" who stay up all day and night, like machines, trying to solve complex, abstract, mathematical problems without any real knowledge of what their solutions will unleash in the real world.

Reese's quarrel with the book is focused on the alleged failure to represent Puebloans. So she isn't writing from a Native point of view but a specifically Puebloan one. This is why she simply doesn't know what to do with the page about the Hopi Indian artist except to ask questions full of winking and innuendo. The Hopi are too far away, she claims, while the San Ildefonso Puebloans were just 17 miles away. She wonders why the Winters chose *them.* Regardless of why they chose the Hopi, it's indisputable that the book represents Native people. Does Reese just think that the Winters are specifically anti-Puebloan and pro-Hopi? Does this seem plausible, given the rest of the book and indeed the rest of the Winters' other books? Puebloans are not named explicitly - so what? It doesn't erase them any more than it erases the non-Puebloans who lived in the area, who are also not specifically named. They are *shown*, correct? More generally, this criticism is just crazy if you know anything about the Winters' work. The Winters have written and illustrated some of the most racially and culturally sensitive books in the history of children's literature - books about Frieda Kahlo, the Negro Leagues, Sonya Sotomayor, Roberto Clemente, James Madison Hemings, Jelly Roll Morton, the Voting Rights Act, girls from Kenya and Afghanistan, Malala Yousafzai, and many other subjects - and now they suddenly have a vendetta against Puebloans?

Reese also has a problem with the use of the word "doll" to describe what the Hopi man is carving. Now, this might disgust you, but Winter uses the word "doll" because - wait for it - that's what they are called. They are Hopi katsina figures or "kachina dolls." According to Wikipedia: "Hopi katsina figures (Hopi language: tithu or katsintithu), also known as kachina dolls are figures carved, typically from cottonwood root, by Hopi people to instruct young girls and new brides about katsinas or katsinam, the immortal beings that bring rain, control other aspects of the natural world and society, and act as messengers between humans and the spirit world."

Clearly the point of including these dolls is to show, at least in part, that there are better ways to use our imaginations than to invent world-destroying bombs. We should CREATE, like O'Keefe, like the Hopi sculptor, not DESTROY. These dolls might also represent a respectful, symbiotic way of relating to nature, as well as a kind of spiritual presence that exists beyond the nihilism of the nuclear arms industry.

Most ridiculously and embarrassingly, Reese claims that Jeanette Winter illustrates the road into Santa Fe as a dirt road, probably because it is a brownish color. But my God, it's just HISTORICALLY ACCURATE to illustrate the road this way! That was the color of the road. Don't take my word for it, just look at this postcard from 1945:

Shouldn't the Winters be praised for their meticulous accuracy?

It should be obvious that Reese simply doesn't like any book about the development of the atom bomb that doesn't talk about Pueblo people and culture explicitly. That they are represented in the illustrations isn't enough. What specific role did the Pueblo people play in the development and testing of the atom bomb that should be told about? If nobody is aware of one, then how is it a valid criticism that Winter erases them from the story - especially if they're not directly involved in it? Even if it were valid, I can't see how much of it still stands once we clear away the inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Reese's review.

I wonder if Reese did ANY research before trying to destroy this book. Maybe she should ask herself why she sees erasure and inaccuracy everywhere in this book when even the most casual Google search completely vindicates the Winters' representations. At the very least she should retract her inaccurate statements and misleading intimations.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 19, 2017 – Started Reading
May 19, 2017 – Shelved

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message 1: by Michael (last edited May 22, 2017 10:48AM) (new)

Michael Well. Once again, we see the strange fruit the replacement of critical thinking with ideological cant has borne in the humanities. Research, of course, is *hard.* Especially nowadays, when everything is available at one's fingertips. And thinking? Whew. The utterance of the very word enervates me.

Reese's review is emblematic of a systemic rot in what was once the bastion of intellectual culture in America. The Winters, here, show how well literary culture has, in fact, responded to multiculturalism, and yet Reese, a virtual caricature of the results of a pedagogical model that teaches only finger-waggling and what the mandarins nowadays call "virtue signaling" instead of historical self-consciousness, analytical rigor, and, heavens forfend, aesthetic appreciation, demonstrates the built-in weakness of every lesson she was taught: nothing, no level of sanctimony, no amount of circumspection, no depth of human sympathy or fellow-feeling, no effort to imagine alterity -- or teach our children to embrace it -- is ever enough. Something is always being erased, effaced, stripped of agency or presence. What can this book's representation of a particular place, and of Native peoples, matter if it excludes Puebloans? What do those Hopi matter? Something is *missing.* A crime has been committed against some impossibly rarefied species of political correctness. I am reminded of would-be literary critics whining about Milton's "L'Allegro" because it did not choose to represent, in a poem about mirth, the grunting and sweating of field laborers. If the poet doesn't look just there, at just that, the whole work must founder; seventeenth-century failure to acknowledge the means of production must stop -- now!

The fundamental problem, the "built-in" problem to which I refer above, is that these forms of cheapjack ideological nitpicking do not acknowledge that the only satisfaction such critical modes can find is in a work that represents, quite literally, *everything*, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The fact that this surpasses what human minds are capable of encompassing, and is, a fortiori, impossible to achieve in a coherent fictional representation of reality with a narrative focus suitable for children, seems to readers like Reese no stumbling block to understanding.

With friends like that, fiction -- or multiculturalism, or pluralism, or efforts to embrace difference -- hardly need enemies.

Thanks for the potent corrective. I hope that, even in the age of "alternative facts," its preference for text-based truth claims over unsubstantial quibbles about imagined "erasures" committed by malevolent hegemons will convince at least some sentient humans to read the book and form their own, and, one hopes, better conclusions.

message 2: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Morelli Very good, sensible review. I believe, too, that Mr. Winter's book is very respectful.

message 3: by Jen (new)

Jen M Fabulous story!!! I highly recommend this book!

message 4: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Green "She begins by noting that "[t]he boys shown [at the Los Alamos Ranch School] are definitely not from the communities of northern New Mexico at that time." Is this a criticism or merely a description? Reese might not like it, but the boys in the illustrations look like the boys who actually attended that school."
Well yes, they do. If you read her original review more thoroughly, you'll see that she went on to say, "That school was the Los Alamos Ranch School. The boys shown are definitely not from the communities of northern New Mexico at that time. In the Author's Note, the school is described as being an elite private academy (elsewhere, I read that William Borrough's went there). It was, and its history is interesting, too."

The boys in the book look like the boys who actually attended, but they weren't from surrounding communities: because they were white boys at an elite private boy's school whose students traveled from elsewhere. The local people were not invited as students.

Reese clarified this & other issues in an updated review at her website posted yesterday.


My own biggest issue with the book is that the Winters made use of Hopi kachina doll imagery without any apparent consultation with the Hopi tribe to ensure they were using sacred imagery properly, without misrepresentation. See the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office's page on "Intellectual Property Rights" for more information.

Patrick J. Re the school: I understand this perfectly. My question is: Did the Winters represent a place and its inhabitants accurately enough for a work in a children's book? The answer is yes. Reese's problem is that they were represented *at all,* presumably because they weren't from there (ie, they were wealthy and white). As for other images in the book, clearly we can assume that the people are from that place. Or at least we have no reason *not* to assume this. So did the book represent people from around there? Yes.

Re the Hopi kachina doll imagery: Okay, so you don't have a problem with the use of the word "doll," evidently; why don't you push back against Reese then? She has excoriated me and Sam Juliano for citing wikipedia for the use of the word "doll." Okay, how about the very site you link to? Reese has backpedaled on this, but the implication of her question in her initial review is clear: that people unfamiliar with the phrase "katsina/kachina doll" will think a "doll" is something frivolous, and that therefore this is "problematic." Had they called them katsina statues the Winters would be criticized for using terminology from the Western aesthetic tradition.

As for the site you link to, please show me where you see anything in there that applies to *paintings/illustrations of dolls and dollmakers*. Their legitimate concern is with pictures of actual ceremonies and with the use of the actual dolls without permission, not with artistic representations of what Hopi artists do. In fact, by showing the artist Jeanette Winters is clearly giving credit to these creators and not simply placing this amazing image of the doll in the book as though she had invented its wonderful design. And she didn't *invent* her own type of kachina-like doll, or do any sort of embellishment. She shows a meticulous respect for the actual dolls and the artists who make them. Jeanette Winters knows more about kachina dolls than any non-Hopi artist, having visited the places where they are made many times and learned from the artists themselves. She has a large collection of books about kachina dolls and has studied them for virtually her entire adult life. The fact that readers are not giving her at least some benefit of the doubt here is infuriating.

But obviously this concerns you, so why don't you contact the HCPO and see what they say about paintings of a kachina doll used to convey the positive image of creativity in opposition to the destructive use of scientific knowledge?

message 6: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam Juliano Then it happened. A sudden, terrible light flashed all around. The light was bright orange – then white, like thousands of lightning bolts all striking at once. Violent shock waves followed, and buildings trembled and began to collapse.

-Toshi Maruki, Hiroshima No Pika (1980)

Eric Schlosser’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety is a harrowing and unnerving work about the palpable prospects of a nuclear detonation, one the author believes we have so far averted because of an astounding run of luck. Four years later the war of words with North Korea as a result of the rogue nation’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons has again brought the matter to center stage, with potential destruction as feasible as Schlosser had envisioned it. Literature for children on this most unthinkable of viable calamities is understandably scarce, especially works on the aftermath, like the once-banned Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence and the shattering Hiroshima No Pika, a 1980 Japanese picture book by Toshi Maruki that chronicled the terrifying events and nuclear fallout after an atomic bomb was dropped on the ill-fated city. Raymond Briggs’ Where the Wind Blows, which was also adapted into a critically praised animated feature that examined the human devastation even more acutely, and a 1983 American film, Testament is an intimate story of a family that succumbs to radiation poisoning one by one.

A cautionary picture book, The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winter, (a son and mother team) is first set in the first quarter of 1943, when United States scientists convene in a New Mexico desert town to engage in an ultra secret enterprise, one the government has requested be completed in short order. Though unsuspecting young readers can’t be expected to immediately identify the objective of this clandestine rendezvous in one of the most innocuous of settings, the book’s mysterious, almost sinister context is scrupulously unveiled much like the peeling off of wraparound gauze after a plastic surgery operation. The book is directly based on the real life “Trinity Test” which was conducted on July, 16, 1945 on land part of the White Sands Missile Range. The end payoff – preceded by a 10 to 1 countdown readers associated with a rocket launch is simultaneously spectacular and terrifying, and leaves no room to underestimate the destructive power of a mushroom cloud explosion that has long since become the physical symbol for complete annihilation. About two years after scientists began their work in the desert atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing Japan to its knees and ending the Second World War. Whereas Schlosser intimated it was only a matter of time before an accident will cause unthinkable devastation, Jonah Winter at the conclusion of his afterward offers hope that stockpiles of nuclear weapons will continue to erode as governments reject the dire effects tests will have on the environment and on health. Winter refers to a 2016 statistic that there remains around 15,700 nuclear weapons in the world presently, but that with world cooperation we can eliminate this very threat of our existence completely.

At the outset Jeanette Winter employs her magnificent digital paintings to accentuate the outdoor beauty of the southwest vistas, recalling some of the impressive monochrome line drawings Peter Parnall did for Byrd Baylor in the 1960’s, which won him several Caldecott Honors. Author Winter denotes a tranquil mountainous landscape in a vast desert while artist Winter’s arresting minimalism incorporates pink textures and a preponderance of plants to denote a spirited interval, a calm before the storm. Launching the narrative shortly before the sudden cessation of activities ordered by the government in a kind of eminent domain maneuver, middle-school age boys in this private institution are outside engaged in games. But the practically idyllic surroundings are soon abandoned after the school principal is given the bad news, and Winter addresses this unwanted intrusion with muted tones, nocturnal blues and a forlorn quality discernible by an open schoolhouse door, a pair of shoes hanging from a rope and a previously used ball left behind. At that point the book’s typography changes from green to black almost as if to thematically emphasize the terrain’s “loss of innocence.” Scientists begin to arrive by cars during a golden sunset, as newly employed workers who will serve food, clean and offer security are checked out and allowed entry, though of course they too aren’t privy to what will be going on. Illustrator Winter’s brilliant silhouette tapestries are introduced by one showing the nondescript experts working through the night. Cutting the tiniest particle in the world – the atom- in half is the first stage of one of the most complex scientific creations known to man. Cerebral contemplation of atom masses is realized firework-styled configuration, but then after the next turn of the page the artist in deliberate juxtaposition reminds the readers that the milieu outside the makeshift compound couldn’t be more breathtaking. Cacti are aplenty, coyotes howl, beavers explore and an artist creates on location. Brighter and more colorful hues and the liberating thrall of daylight seemingly allow for the aesthetic response to the shady machinations being engineered behind closed doors.

Perhaps the most ravishing canvas of all is the ornate one showing a Hopi Indian engaged in carving beautiful wooden dolls in a place author Winter tellingly denotes as “in the faraway nearby.” As if to point to the imminent danger of the surreptitious progress inside the now converted laboratory, the illustrator continues to paint this dubious activity as always cloaked in darkness and a serious threat to the passion and productivity still prospering all around. In a race against time these nameless figures, super intelligent mathematicians work on equations in another Jeanette Winter gem depicting frenzied activity around a chalkboard illuminated by a ubiquitous seedy overhead light. Two of the men are crafted as drab figures in an automobile entering a vibrant town. In a brief sojourn from their cloistered habitat they visit a small wooden park and a central stone monument, but remain incognito even while maintaining a friendly demeanor. But when the leave during the cloak of night their eyes are peeled in the rearview mirror, making sure they aren’t followed. But they too are subject to security gate scrutiny and must present their identification to the guard. Again in the laboratory the covert fraternity must sort out the never-ending entanglement of equations, the most vital component in this government sponsored mission. The Secret Project’s most emblematic and arresting illustration, the one superbly encapsulated within the borders of the letter “O” on the cover title, highlights symbols of atoms, neutrons and protons on the profile silhouette of a scientist’s head. Jonah Winter’s corresponding narrative thrust keys in to the point where research has latch onto what turns out to be the vital discovery:

Only a little more research is needed – research on a metal called uranium that can be turned into something with enormous power. And then:

After two years of almost constant research the “Gadget” is completed, ready to be tested. The great scientists gather around their creation in silence, wondering if it will work.

Of course the term used for what was the be the quirky most destructive instrument ever conceived in world history was to mask the severity, while trying to divert concern. The artist denotes the “miles and miles” of open space where they will conduct their test, even suggesting that it is raining in one section and is dry in another. The “Gadget” is hung from the top of a metal tower. But they must drive to a safe spot so they can observe without getting hurt or risk being adversely affected from the radioactive fallout. Under the cover of darkness they pack the “Gadget” onto a truck and drive into the night, even passing through some rain on a trek they fully expect no one will take notice of. The artist’s canvas here depicting a dark night in an off the beacon track under a moon-lit sky and then under the cascading rain is stunning They retreat to a distant bunker where they expect a thunderous explosion of earth-shattering proportions. They are shown again in silhouette and then looking out from a round window to witness this inconceivable test. After a double page spread features the countdown, with the size of the numbers decreasing, they are then seen wearing glasses as the nuclear weapon explodes. Ms. Winter’s art here is spectacular, especially as the force of the red-orange tornado like torrent rises and then, suddenly with one turn of the page all turns a terrifying black, which in this book represents nothingness in what can be seen as an end of the world scenario for people within range of the detonation. The ominous stark gray-black cover features bold, gravestone lettering and a back panel of the school before governmental intrusion.

The Secret Project introduces the most fearful of subjects to the youngest readers at a time of supreme urgency. Jeanette Winter’s resplendent minimalism compellingly establishes mood and mystery, while most importantly warns those who partake in such development risk our very existence. The intrinsic beauty of our culture and physical surroundings has rarely been presented in such fateful terms as those in this uncompromising work. This powerful picture book is one of the two or three greatest of 2017 and demands inclusion in the Caldecott committee’s winners circle.

Debbie The responsibility to contact them is Jeanette and Jonah Winter.

A few years ago, I saw another use of kachina dolls. This time it was by a game developer. I wrote about it. He was sure I was wrong, and he started doing some research. Here's an article about it:

Patrick J. Debbie,

If not having contacted the HPCO is a basis for concern about this book, then you need to know 1) that the authors needed to contact them in the first place and 2) that the authors didn't do so. You don't know what they did or didn't do, and you don't seem to have any basis for claiming that they should have done anything in the first place, so how is this a problem? You don't know if it's a problem yet, so it seems that the persons concerned with whether it is should do the legwork. "I find this problematic! And yet, I will not check to see if it is actually a problem...." Who knows, maybe Jeanette Winter asked one of the Hopi artists she met and studied with a long time ago. You know, it's just amazing to me that the person in this whole discussion who is being criticized for her use of the doll and for her supposed lack of knowledge about it is perhaps the only one who has *actually* studied how they are made and what they signify with *actual* Hopi artists. Does this not seem ironic to you?

I don't see how this video game example is at all analogous. Please elaborate.

Why didn't you have a problem with this six months ago, but instead questioned the use of the word "dolls" (which you yourself use here)? Some random commenter raises this issue in your feed and now it's a problem?

Debbie 1. Tell me about Jeanette Winter's collection of kachina dolls and books.
2. Did you see my second review, the part about the kachina dolls? My concern is not with her using the word doll.

Patrick J. 1. I know a lot of people in publishing who know Jeanette Winter, and everyone who knows her knows about her extensive library of books on kachina dolls, her love of these dolls, her vast collection of these dolls, and the fact that she takes them very, very seriously and has met the carvers. It's just common knowledge among people who know her.

2. I have seen your second post. The implication of your question in your first post about the word "dolls" and how non-Native people would understand it is fairly clear, though. In fact, you reiterate your concern in the second post. You worry about the non-Native reader’s inability to interpret this story and its images properly. You criticize the Winters for leaving lots of gaps, but the fact that you had to write another review about this book shows that you left, or rather generated, a number of gaps, which you multiply by asking even more questions about the book that aren’t justified by the text. Anyway, I am glad you are now saying you don't have a problem with this word.

One concern of yours is that the Winters left readers with a sense that these dolls were toys. What justifies this concern? Dolls are shown as they are being made, and one doll is shown hovering over the laboratory, an image which has been praised by some reviewers as being the most powerful one in the book, an act of the imagination which goes far beyond the text to show the presence, not erasure, of the surrounding Puebloan culture in relation to the horrors being concocted by the scientists in the secret laboratory. You mentioned the use of kachina in video games in your previous post, but nothing could be further from the way the Winters have represented the dolls here. The Secret Project is the furthest thing from a frivolous book; it is in deadly earnest about a subject of utmost urgency and seriousness.

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