Remembering 9/11 with Five Books for Different Ages

September 2, 2021 § 4 Comments

Everyone has a story about where they were on 9/11, and if you tell yours, you’ll almost certainly be interrupted by someone eager to share theirs. And yet, for stories so easily accessed—seemingly lying in wait on the tip of our tongue—we go to great lengths to keep them from leaking out into mainstream conversation, or even into the privacy of our own homes, without explicit invitation. This is especially true with our children.

Twenty years have passed, but talking about 9/11 with children—especially young children—continues to makes many parents and teachers uncomfortable. I cannot begin to appreciate the trauma of those directly impacted by the horrific events of that day, but even those of us physically distanced from the attacks felt a profound terror course through our veins as we attempted to make sense of what we were seeing on our television screens, as we scrambled to contact loved ones in New York or Washington DC, as we passed subsequent days under eerily silent skies. It was a fear unprecedented for many of us, and it represented a before-and-after moment we can never un-see. Many of us would rather avoid the topic altogether, or gloss over the horrifying details, than pass along that fear to our children.

And yet, our children have spent their entire lives in a post-9/11 world—in the “after,” so to speak. The safety precautions that started in its wake are the only ones our kids have ever known. I let my ten-year-old daughter read Alan Gratz’s Ground Zero (discussed below) earlier this year after she begged, and I waited for her to set it down, to tell me it was too scary, that she never wanted to take an elevator or get on a plane again. But that didn’t happen. She absorbed the horrors in those pages as she had those in The War That Saved My Life, a gorgeous but also heavy novel about World War Two. I might say she hungered for it.

I’ve come to see that my children want us to talk about that day. They want to understand what led to our longest war in history, the tragic aftermath of which is playing out right now. They want to understand the terror we felt. They want, as I do each time I visit my mom in Manhattan, to stand in front of the reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial and marvel at the names, to contemplate the absence that the rushing water dies into.

I’ve come to see the value in unburdening this history—both for them and for us. We don’t know exactly where 9/11 will land in history, but we do know that our democracy was attacked that day, that our power structures were undermined, and that we were forced to take stock of the values we hold most dear. The events of that day are not only part of our cultural consciousness, they’re a reminder that we must work every day to uphold the freedom that paves the way for a more just and equitable world. (I had my own 9/11 reckoning earlier this year, when I listened to the astounding audio production of Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky.)

I’ve come to see the value that good, careful literature offers in imparting this history—and in pointing us towards hope. In the face of egregious violence and horror and loss on 9/11, there were countless narratives of resilience. Of coming together. Of helping and sacrificing and supporting. Of courage in the most unlikely places. As author Jewell Parker Rhodes recently said on a Little Brown panel, “Narrative takes pain and chaos and helps us make sense of it in a way that allows us to move toward healing.”

Children’s books have a universally honored obligation to end with hope, no matter the subject. It’s what makes them so sacred. The books I discuss below—some a few years old and some published to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11—take the trauma of that day and transform it into history with grace and beauty. There’s an immensely moving and uplifting picture book that allows the smallest child to connect with the absence and loss surrounding 9/11—I would not hesitate to read it to a four year old, nor to any age for that matter—and there are chapter books that approach the subject from various angles (and with various levels of violence). There’s an outstanding graphic novel that manages a comprehensive study of the subject in just over 100 pages. As always, I provide age ranges below each title.

With each of these books, your child is in the best hands. These are creators who believe and excel in the craft and power of storytelling. Even when we ourselves might be at a loss, children’s creators continue to show up with the words and pictures to help our children make sense of the world, to fight for the hope they want to see, and for that I remain eternally grateful.

Survivor Tree
by Marcie Colleen; illus. Aaron Becker
Ages 4-104

OH. MY. HEART. The only trouble with folding this title into a post with four others is that I don’t have the space to do it justice. This, right here, is why I do what I do. Why I hold up picture books, time and again, as essential and timeless and for all ages. The true 9/11 story that Survivor Tree imparts is undeniably powerful on its own, but the book’s delivery ensures it nestles inside our hearts. Colleen’s sparse, lyrical text, paired with Becker’s stunning spreads (you’ll remember his striking visual storytelling from the wordless Journey trilogy), have created a profound way to talk to children of resilience in the face of loss. It’s a 9/11 story, but it’s also a story of color and seasons, of grief and repair, of memory and memorial. It’s a story that reminds us that beauty is never entirely absent, and that regrowth is possible, even when we can’t see it.

For nearly thirty years, “a tree stood steel-straight and proud” in the shadow of two towers that “filled its sky.” It was a Callery pear tree, and it went largely unnoticed, though it did what deciduous trees do: it sported bare branches in winter, it blossomed white in the spring, and it rained down blazing heart-shaped leaves in the fall. Until “One September day,/ the perfect blue sky exploded.” There are no allusions to planes, no collapsing buildings, no violence at all: just a smattering of papers and photographs suspended in a billowing cloud of smoke, leaving the reader in charge of exactly how much information to impart to the young listener.

The tree lay “crushed and burned” under “blackened remains.” It would never have been given another thought except that, one day, workers discovered a few surprising sprigs of green on its branches. They had the tree removed to a nursery (consider this: exhausted, brokenhearted rescue workers paused their work to care for a tree), where “two stone blocks were placed in its stunted shadow,” “a memorial of makeshift towers in a makeshift home.”

And though the tree appeared for a long time like it would buckle under the weight of its devastation, beneath the ground its roots were warm and nurtured and strong. The tree became a home for doves and, over the next ten years, miraculously, it began to spawn new growth from its “charred and gnarled” branches. Until it could honor the seasons once more. Until it could return home, where it sits today, at the site of the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. There, it serves as a physical timeline of pain and grief, an evocative reminder of where we have been and where we are capable of going. It belongs to all of us; it is “our survivor tree.”

Careful readers will observe a second, ancillary storyline evident only in Becker’s artwork: a human story. The family of three that appears in the opening pages at some point becomes a family of two. Presumably, the boy has lost his mother in the collapsing towers, his grief echoed by that of the survivor tree.

Towers Falling
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Ages 8-12

After my son read and loved this quick-paced novel when he was eleven, I started recommending Towers Falling to anyone looking for an introduction to the events of 9/11. Rhodes sets her novel on the 15th anniversary of the attacks, deliberately putting space between the reader and the violence of that day, in order the explore the impact on the families of those who were front and center that day—specifically, lingering anxiety and PTSD.

Dèja, the novel’s 5th grade protagonist, doesn’t understand why she should bother to learn about the anniversary of 9/11 in her school’s “integrated” curriculum, when she’s got a mountain of problems in the here and now: her family is homeless, and her father’s mysterious bouts of agitation, depression, and wheezing mean he can’t hold down a job. But at her new public school in Brooklyn, just across the river from where the Twin Towers stood, it seems everyone has a story about “that morning.”

As Dèja begins to learn the details of that tragic day, including a connection she never knew her family had to the Towers—her father was working that morning as a security guard—she begins to re-frame her thinking around the relevance of history, what it means to be an American, and the role of relationships in rebuilding and healing communities.

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story
by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Ages 8-12

Where Towers Falling is concerned with the aftermath of 9/11, Nine, Ten explores the 48 hours leading up to the attacks—specifically, how they play out for four fictional middle schoolers around the country, consumed with their own tween dramas before the world turns upside down. It’s a novel that leans into the idea that everyone has a story about that day.

Sergio, a math whiz in Brooklyn, strikes up a chance friendship with a firefighter while playing hooky on the subway; the next day, he fears for the first responder’s life. In Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Will has recently lost his father to a tragic car accident, and the only thing that makes any sense is his friendship with Claire, whom he kisses just as the fourth plane spirals from the sky. Naheed, in Columbus, Ohio, lives nowhere near the attacks, but her hijab, already drawing unwelcome comments from classmates before the terrorist attacks, makes her an easy target when the terrorists are revealed to be Muslim. Finally, after moving across the country to start school in Los Angeles, Aimee is furious that her mom would miss her first days because of a business trip to the World Trade Center.

Like Rhodes, Baskin taps into the shock and fear of 9/11, while still maintaining careful distance between the events and her protagonists. None of the four children are ever in harm’s way, and none of them lose a loved one to the attacks. And yet, all four are left seeking answers, yearning for connection, and restless in pursuit of a better world—and their paths converge one year later in the novel’s beautiful final scene.

Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11
by Alan Gratz
Ages 11-15

It has never been Gratz’s jam to shy away from violence; indeed, his novels keep tweens and teens on the edge of their seats, and they adore him for it. Consequently, Ground Zero puts us directly inside the horror of that day. But Gratz didn’t write this novel to scare readers. He wrote it so our children could understand why our memory of 9/11 is still so raw. He wrote it so they could understand some of the complexities and contradictions of the resulting war in Afghanistan. He wrote it because, as all his stories attest, he believes children are the fiercest, bravest, kindest of heroes.

The novel is told through two alternating narratives: one in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and the other on the same day eighteen years later in the mountains of Afghanistan. Brandon is visiting his father at work in the North Tower, when the first plane hits and he is trapped in a falling elevator with a group of strangers. Unable to get to his father on the 107th floor, Brandon is thrust into a fiery nightmare of escape and survival.

Reshmina knows nothing of 9/11 and the Twin Towers, but she has grown up in the shadow of a war playing out in the caves around her village, and she resents the presence of American soldiers, especially their raids that have claimed civilian lives, including that of her beloved sister. But when she stumbles upon a wounded American solider and he pleads for refuge, Pashtun law forbids her from refusing, even if it means putting her family in grave danger. Reshmina’s courage and resilience matches Brandon’s eighteen years earlier, and a surprise twist at the end brings the book full circle.

In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers: The Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Day, Weeks, Months, and Years after the 9/11 Attacks
by Don Brown
Ages 12-16

Brown, by now a master of non-fiction graphic novels, distills a whopping 109 primary and secondary sources into a comprehensive and surprisingly intimate history of 9/11 that spans just over 100 pages and is rendered in a palette evocative of the dust and debris of what we knew as Ground Zero but what recovery workers referred to as The Pile. (That said, this is a book is for teens. If you’ve got kids in the 7-10 set looking for a graphic novel that’s less history and more storytelling, you can’t go wrong with the graphic adaptation of I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001.)

In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers begins in the rubble of the freshly collapsed South Tower, citing stories of specific first responders and harrowing rescues, before going backwards and forward in time to cover different facets of 9/11. This is the only book here that delves into the explosion at the Pentagon or the struggle in the cockpit over Pennsylvania, that charts Air Force One’s early actions, that talks of the 7,000 passengers diverted to Newfoundland to sleep in school gymnasiums on donated blankets until American airspace reopened. Brown also references details of the war on al Qaeda: how US special forces initially fought alongside Afghan allies on horseback, how many in the US turned on its own Muslim population out of ignorance and fear, how Bin Laden was ultimately assassinated and other suspects subjected to “aggressive interrogation” at places like Guantánamo Bay.

Brown’s arresting art echoes the gravitas of his subject and does not shy away from despair or fear. But his prose assumes a matter-of-fact tone that allows us to bring our own inquisitiveness to the subject. It’s not until the final pages that Brown delivers some emotion of his own:

In the shadow of the fallen towers, there is grief and sadness. Yet it is a shared grief and sadness that maybe, just maybe, binds wounds, slackens pain, and shores up the country. [In the words of a construction worker on the site of what would become the Freedom Tower,] “They hit the World Trade Center. They hit the Pentagon. But they missed America.“

Sending warm thoughts to everyone next week, as we prepare to honor this momentous 20th anniversary.

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Books published by Little Brown (review copy), Little Brown (purchased copy), Atheneum (review copy), Scholastic (review copy), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (purchased copy), respectively. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we shop local and support our communities when we can. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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