Monthly Archives: March 2017

Towers Falling

24846343There’s no good way to write about 9/11.  There just isn’t.  And that’s something that we need to understand, that, at least for now, it will be associated with something truly terrible happening on American soil.

That being said, how can you explain the event to the children born after it?

That is the question tackled by Jewell Parker Rhodes in her young adult novel Towers Falling.  Focusing on life 15 years later, the novel’s narrator, Dèja, is a ten year old who lives in New York and learns about what happened.  Dèja and her family are homeless and dealing with the complications from that – they’ve just moved to a new housing center, her mom works as much as she can, Dèja helps take care of her two younger siblings, and her father stays in, trying to overcome mysterious health conditions that Dèja does not understand.

When she starts at her new school, Dèja tries not to like it, but of course becomes friends with Ben, the new boy from Arizona whose parents are separated, and Sabeen, who is Muslim.  School lesson plans are attempting to lead the students toward 9/11, but Dèja and her classmates, being born after the event, sometimes struggle to understand how the world changed.  Along the way, Dèja learns about recent history, her father, and herself.

This might have been one of the hardest books to read this year, simply because I still remember the day it happened.  I can picture the exact moment I heard – my parents had seen the news reports, but we went to school as though nothing had happened, but I knew something was wrong.  And then my classmate Trevor walked across the playground and we heard that the towers had fallen.  He was carrying cupcakes – it was his birthday.

I was about Dèja’s age on 9/11, and I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on.  But having grown up after that, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  And on our New York/D.C. trip several years later, we saw the holes in the skyline.  It’s haunting.

But that’s why I think this book was worth reading.  It’s hard to imagine children growing up not knowing about it, but how can any parent explain it?  How can you describe the fear and the hate, the love and the strength?  How can you describe how Americans can pull together in times of tragedy?  How can your child even begin to fathom what it was like?

The simplicity of the language makes a frightening topic easy to read, but the subject matter doesn’t change.  Dèja watches video of the day, she tries to research to understand what happened.  But Dèja also contemplates terrorism in, if a simple way, a child’s honest way, wondering why Sabeen’s family should be afraid if they are good people and also Muslims.  Ben’s father signed up for the military because of 9/11, and Dèja’s father is equally haunted by the day.

It’s how easy the vocabulary is, and how true Dèja is, that makes Towers Falling so worthwhile for young adults looking for answers, or adults trying to explain what happened.  I repeat: there’s no good way to write about 9/11.  But if there is, it’s how Jewell Parker Rhodes has done it.

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Worth the Hype

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Most of the time, it seems that I am on a completely different page as the people who rave about award-winning books.  I feel like I usually find them interesting, or decent, but far from what I would consider AMAZING.  And I hate to say it, but usually Oprah’s Book Club picks land among those I find fine, but un-extraordinary.

I am happy to be proven wrong by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.  So many people have claimed it’s amazing, have said it’s a must-read, have said it should win every award and be read by every single person, blah blah blah.  I finally picked it up.

It really is beautiful.

The plot is deceptively simple: Cora, a slave in Georgia, escapes the plantation and goes North on the literal Underground Railroad, but finds herself pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.  But the way Whitehead develops every character, and especially Cora, brings a depth to the story that I don’t think anyone else could have done.  And the pacing is gorgeous – the calmness of action when Cora finds a new place to stay is always shadowed by the knowledge that Ridgeway is coming for her, and the franticness of passages where the action kicks off makes you devour the pages.

Most of all, the writing is unbelievable.  I usually can read fairly quickly, and appreciate good writing where it exists, but this book made me slow down repeatedly to take in the sentence structure and the language and the way ideas are melded together.  It’s a glorious piece of literature, from the writing technicalities to the last page of the story.

I love being proven wrong.  Okay, maybe not all the time, but I do with books.  I like being told a book is one way and finding it another, or anticipating how I will feel about a book and then discovering my feelings were wrong.  This might have been the best book to be proven wrong about.

P.S. It’s still early stages, but Barry Jenkins is going to be working on an adaptation
of this at some point.  Which means it will be amazing.  So read it first.

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