What Was 9-11?

It recently occurred to me—and apparently to all children’s writers and publishers—that we have kids in high school today who were not alive on September 11, 2001. We have college students today who have no memory of this incredible disaster that happened when they were toddlers. As we approach this fifteenth anniversary of mourning, many authors have taken up the pen to help children understand what happened and the effect that it has had on our nation and on the American culture ever since. In addition to the picture book Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, which I reviewed here earlier, I have also read two brand-new, middle grade novels.

Nine TenNora Raleigh Baskin begins her Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story in O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Several families are gathered there, some waiting for loved ones to arrive, others wishing family members good-bye. I had forgotten the days when everyone could crowd right up to the gate and watch the planes take off, and kids who know the security of today’s airports will wonder at these family scenes. From Chicago, one mother goes to New York on business while her family moves to California. Other passengers are going home to New York, and one main character goes to Pennsylvania. From there, the story is told from four different perspectives. Baskin focuses on the children’s lives on September 10th, helping today’s kids to see both an America that is gone forever and that diverse American people share more things in common than their differences would make one expect. They did then, and they still do. The story shows the various ways that citizens around the country experienced the attack itself. In an epilogue, the characters— who do not know one another— are assembled together at the one-year memorial ceremony. An author’s note tells Baskin’s own experience of 9-11 as a Connecticut resident about an hour’s drive from Manhattan.

Towers FallingOn a somewhat older level, Jewell Parker Rhodes tells the story through the eyes of a poverty-stricken, African-American, fifth-grade girl in her novel, Towers Falling. Dejà, her parents, and her two younger siblings have recently moved into a homeless shelter for families. Dejà’s father is so sick that he can no longer hold down a job, and although her mother sometimes works extra shifts, her family barely has enough to eat. In her new school in Brooklyn, the teachers have begun teaching the children about something that happened in Manhattan on a site that they can see from the school windows. All of the children know more about it than Dejà, who doesn’t see how history lessons are going to help her pull herself out of poverty and attain her life’s goal: to buy the biggest house in the world. Sabeen, a wealthy Muslim girl, and Ben, a boy who recently moved from Arizona when his parents divorced, become her close friends as they work on school projects together. Ben and Dejà go beyond their teachers’ guidelines to travel to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, where they are faced with more information than may be appropriate for ten-year-olds. Confronting these memories, however, may help bring healing to Dejà’s family.

Either of these novels could be an excellent companion to a discussion of September 11th for your family. Ms. Rhodes’ novel digs more deeply into the actual events and the reasoning behind it, but it also describes the attack in fairly horrific detail, including people jumping from the burning buildings and the towers collapsing on people inside. I did find Dejà’s complete ignorance of the event difficult to believe, but I have never been in her environment, so I will withhold judgment. Both books included Muslim characters, notably female in both instances, since the hijab caused them to stand out in public. In Baskin’s novel, Muslim harassment was expressed, whereas in Towers Falling, discrimination was felt by Sabeen, which was even more interesting, considering that Nine, Ten takes place fifteen years ago and Towers Falling takes place in the present time. While Towers Falling focuses completely on New York, Nine, Ten has one character in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and mentions the attack on the Pentagon, as well.

14 Cows for AmericaI cannot leave a discussion of books about September 11th without mentioning one of my favorites, 14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deedy, published in 2009. Rather than focusing on the event itself, this picture book tells a true, related story about a diplomat from Kenya who was in New York at the time, and then returns to the Maasai people to try to explain it to them. Their beautiful gesture of sympathy will restore your faith in humanity by showing one culture reaching out to grieving people halfway around the world, and the receiving nation treating their gift with great honor and appreciation. There is love in the world, after all.

As we come up on this somber anniversary, it is reassuring to know that gifted writers are creating stories that can help families to explain to their children, in age-appropriate ways, an unfathomable tragedy that happened to us, to them, to our nation just fifteen short years ago.


Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Nine, Ten, and library copies of Towers Falling and 14 Cows for America. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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