The commemoration of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have passed, but as we held a moment of silence for those who died that day, I wondered how much do students really know about what happened. To adults my age, it’s not history; it’s something we lived through and will never forget. And being in the Boston area, where two of the planes originated, many of us have connections to someone who was directly impacted by that day. But if you’re a freshman, you likely weren’t even alive; if you’re a senior, you may have still been in diapers. In both cases, you may have little understanding of the events beyond what’s been covered in history class.
That’s where media comes in, the countless documentaries, news specials, fictionalized reenactments and books hoping to shed some light on the story. Since I personally still have a hard time looking at pictures or video of the planes slamming into the World Trade Center, I naturally head toward books to help me not just understand, but to remember and, even after all this time, to grieve.
Unfortunately, for years, I couldn’t find any good books about what happened (and this is a librarian talking!). There were children’s books, inspired by a fireboat that helped rescue survivors in New York or a general push toward kindness and tolerance. There were adult books, dense tomes trying to follow the paper trail toward the attackers and their financial backers. There were books that recorded survivors’ testimonials, chronicled the hero dogs that helped dig through wreckage for body parts, or recounted the devastating effects on soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq during the seemingly endless War on Terror. There is a great novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer, about a boy trying to make sense of his father’s death in the attacks, but at 368 pages, it scares some students away.
Then I found Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Set in the boroughs of New York City ten years later, the book follows 10-year-old Deja in her struggle to understand why her father went “crazy” after Sept. 11, why he can’t hold a job and the family must live in a cramped homeless shelter. In school, her classes memorialize the attacks, but don’t really understand the ramifications, the effects still rippling through people’s lives. With the help of her friend Ben, whose father served in the military, and Sabeen, who has been bullied for being Muslim, Deja uncovers her family’s long-held secret. She finally understands why her father is the way he is.
Although this book is geared for middle schoolers (grades 4-7 if you read the reviews), I bought two copies for the HHS Library. Sure, the main characters are younger, but I think many of us can relate to their confusion over something that adults feel was life-changing but is mere ancient history to them. When I read about Pearl Harbor or Vietnam, I feel the same sense of detachment that young people may feel about 9/11. This novel can help students explore and process their feelings about the attacks, and the memorial services that come every September. It’s done without being overly graphic or unnecessarily somber, and I would recommend that every HHS student devote the few hours it would take to read this short novel.