The Spy with the Red Balloon Author’s Note

This author’s note appears in the advanced review copies of The Spy with the Red BalloonAdditions or changes may be made prior to final printing. This page will be updated if that occurs. 

Mixing magic and history is much like a science experiment. It takes just the right amount of each ingredient to make it work. In The Spy with the Red Balloon, I wove together many different threads of history along with the emergence of the magic system seen in The Girl with the Red Balloon.

The Manhattan Project was a real project. It was the code name for the top secret scientific and engineering experiment to design and create the world’s first atomic bomb. It was so secret that Vice President Harry Truman had no idea it existed. When Roosevelt died, Truman was sworn in as president—and promptly briefed about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs it’d created.

The project had several sites, including Chicago, Illinois; Los Alamos, New Mexico (referred to as the Hill in this book); Hanford, Washington; and, as depicted in the book, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In 1943, Oak Ridge was called Clinton Engineer Works. The town was planned and designed to support the research and engineering needs of the three reactors: Y-12, X-10, and K-25. Ilse worked beside the X-10 reactor, otherwise known as the graphite reactor. On my website, you can see photos of this reactor that I took on my trip to Oak Ridge in November 2016.

As the draft pulled men from America’s workforce, women filled the jobs. Oak Ridge was home to nearly 75,000 workers, a majority of whom were women. Many worked on the reactors as technicians or as scientists. Though there was not an all-women scientific team at Oak Ridge, many women scientists did work on the Manhattan Project at each of its sites, and they should not be forgotten by history.

As mentioned in the book, Oak Ridge was a segregated town. The African American community that built Oak Ridge, lived there, and supported the Manhattan Project has an unsung history but a vital one. Jim Crow politics kept African American scientists like J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., PhD, from working at Oak Ridge. Stella is a figment of my imagination, but she also represents my hope that we will honor African American contributions to World War II, including the Manhattan Project, with more research, visibility, and discussion.

For readers interested in the decision that Ilse, Stella, Polly, and Lola make at the end of Spy, I encourage you to read up on the Szilard petition to President Truman. Many of the scientists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project signed the petition urging President Truman not to use the atomic bomb against Japan, believing that such use was no longer warranted.

The Manhattan Project reached abroad too. The project sought to slow down or halt the progress of Hitler’s atomic bomb with Operation Alsos, largely operating in 1944 instead of the 1943 of the story. While Wolf’s mission is not taken directly from one of Operation Alsos’s operations, Alsos served as a model. Haigerloch, Hechingen, and Oranienburg were real German nuclear weapons sites, right down to the unusual prototype reactor in the beer cellar of the church of a castle. You can read more about that in the article about the Atomkeller Museum on the Atlas Obscura website, or you can visit it yourself in Germany.

You can find a complete list of the books that assisted my research for this book on my website,