Steve Sheinkin is a master of fast-paced histories for young readers. His books, which are as educational as they are entertaining, often focus on issues of betrayal, especially during wartime. “The Notorious Benedict Arnold” (2010) gave the Founding Traitor a full and fair hearing. In “Bomb,” a 2012 National Book Award finalist , Sheinkin tracked down the scientists, spies and counterspies involved in the making — and stealing — of the atomic bomb. And “The Port Chicago 50” (2014) showed how a group of African American servicemen were unfairly convicted of mutiny during World War II.
“Most Dangerous,” longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, is Sheinkin’s most compelling one yet. Here, he wades into the quagmire of the Vietnam War to tell the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a government analyst who in 1971 leaked classified documents to the news media — first published by the New York Times and The Washington Post — and was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. The case was ultimately dropped.
Sheinkin’s compelling biography of the man behind the Pentagon Papers delves into Ellsberg’s transformation from dedicated cold warrior into controversial political figure: a second Benedict Arnold, according to Sen. Barry Goldwater, an American hero to others.
The narrative shifts among multiple points of view: that of Ellsberg, as he learned more about the gap between what was happening in Vietnam and what top officials publicly said was happening; that of the pilots who were shot down and held at Hanoi’s military prison; and that of the American war planners, including Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. As “Most Dangerous” presents it, neither could stomach being the first U.S. president to lose a war.
Throughout this lively book, Sheinkin offers welcome shifts of mood. Amid the political and journalistic drama, for example, there are darkly comical scenes about the bungled break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. A turning point in “Most Dangerous” arrives when Ellsberg chooses to copy top-secret material that revealed the pattern of deception behind the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. But Sheinkin shows that Ellsberg’s own decision-making wasn’t exactly flawless, either, such as when he enlisted his son, age 13, to help him with the photocopying. Ellsberg’s ex-wife was livid: “You do not take children along to commit felonies.”
The book’s exciting account of how the Pentagon Papers were published raises important legal questions and shows the links among Vietnam, Ellsberg and the eventual downfall of the Nixon presidency. And Sheinkin brings disputes about government secrets and journalistic freedom into the present with an epilogue about Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency document leaker whose actions some have called cowardly and traitorous. On this matter, Ellsberg gets the last word: “I would have done just what he has done.”
Abby McGanney Nolan regularly reviews nonfiction children’s books for the Washington Post.
On Sept. 25 at 7 p.m., Steve Sheinkin will be reading at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook, 370 pp. $19.99. Ages 11 to 14.