All posts by Sue McHugh

In Towers Falling, a Novel Approach to Understanding 9/11

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.


Review: Book Sheds More Light on The Martian’s Fight for Survival

You may already know the story behind The Martian, the Oscar-nominated movie starring Matt Damon. But if you’ve only seen the movie, you’re missing the great look into the psyche of the stranded astronaut that is contained in the book. And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I highly recommend that you read the book first.

I started with the book, written in 2011 by self-proclaimed science nerd Andy Weir. From friends who have seen the movie, I have heard that the stories are very similar.  When Mark Watney and his team of astronauts are caught in a terrible sandstorm while exploring Mars, Watney is presumed dead and left behind. Facing a distant, and very slim, chance of rescue with supplies only meant to last a short time, Watney must invent ways to grow food, expand water and air supplies and restore communications with NASA. Eventually, a rescue plan is put into place, but it requires a dangerous trek across Martian terrain where survival depends on stretching Watney’s equipment, abilities and determination beyond their limits.

The main difference between the movie and the book is that much of the book is told through Watney’s journals. Instead of just watching him devise a system to grow potatoes using his own waste, as you do in the movie, you read what he is thinking (and smelling) as he mixes bags of poo with soil samples from Earth in the hope of growing enough food to survive. In the scene where Watney loses his recently regained ability to talk to NASA, the book reveals his shift from confusion to terror to anger when he realizes it’s a result of his own mistake. These glimpses into his mindset make the reality of his situation — the hopelessness, fear, ingenuity and bravery– all the more pressing. It turns a story of survival into an exploration of the rollercoaster emotions a person experiences when faced with danger.

At times, the scientific explanations in the book went over my head, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment. Even without understanding every detail, I was riveted by Watney’s plight and cheering for a happy ending. The story of survival against all odds — whether it occurs on Mars, the oceans of Earth or in a dysfunctional family — is something most of us can relate to. The Martian was a great read, and now I can’t wait to see the movie.