There’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.