9/11 as “history” is a foreign concept for adult readers. Though for children and teens, the 15-year anniversary this Sunday may mark one of their first in-depth encounters with the day that changed America forever. But how do you convey the impact of such a landscape-altering event without sensationalizing it, or turning it into melodrama?
Ask any of the four middle grade and young adult authors who courageously tackle 9/11 in a crop of freshly-published novels and they might point to one word: relationships. As their characters brave the consequences of the devastating terrorist attacks – some directly in the aftermath, and others years later – one universal message comes through: Our lives are interconnected, inextricably linked. This means that our actions, for good or evil, have a ripple effect. And though the ripple effects of evil loom large given the central tragedy in each of these stories, the main point of these books is that good prevails through the actions of good people.
All We Have Left by Wendy Mills (Ages 14+)
Wendy Mills steps bravely into the Twin Towers with this young adult novel that spans two time periods – 2001 and 2016 – and interweaves the stories of two strong female protagonists who have more in common than they know.
Jesse’s brother died in the September 11th attacks, and her life has been shaped by the fallout from his death, which is still convulsing her family. Back in 2001, Alia finds it infinitely more bearable to be a Muslim than to be a 16-year-old. Both narratives take off when these resilient young heroines find themselves in desperate circumstances: Jesse searching for clues as to why her brother was in the World Trade Center in the first place, and Alia fighting for her life as a chance errand takes her deep inside the towers at the time of the attack.
It’s rare that a book manages to be deeply thoughtful and still offer up a compelling read, but “All We Have Left” seems to do so effortlessly.
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Ages 9-12)
Don’t be fooled by the straightforward storytelling in this middle-grade treasure. Nora Raleigh Baskin’s book explores multiple layers of meaning as each of her four diverse characters comes of age in both a personal and national sense.
In “Nine, Ten,” Baskin chronicles the days leading up to 9/11 through four vantage points, then flashes forward a year to examine the way each of her protagonists has changed in the face of the tragedy. For Sergio, a Brooklyn math whiz with a deadbeat dad, issues of love, hate, and family come to head in the span of 72 hours. Amy’s mother is in New York as Amy struggles to adjust to life on the other side of the country. In Pennsylvania, Will is already dealing with the pain of his father’s death when a plane nosedives into his hometown. And in the Midwest, Nadira grapples with what it means to be Muslim both before and after the attacks.
Is it possible to convey something of life before 9/11 to kids who have never experienced it? “Nine, Ten” does so with a gentle touch and lots of care for its young readers.
The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner (Ages 14+)
Teenager Kyle Donohue is fleeing the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when he stumbles across a terrified girl cowering in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge. Kyle, who doesn’t think himself brave – but proves otherwise over the course of this story, though not always in the traditional sense of the word – makes the split-second decision to bring her home with him to wait out what feels like an apocalypse.
Kyle’s own issues – with himself and with various family members – are delicately woven into the fabric of this story, setting up a thought-provoking contrast between the way life went on after the attacks, even as the city reeled and the magnitude of the tragedy left no one untouched.
Kyle is a winning protagonist whose responses to 9/11 and its effects on the people he loves feel completely believable and intensely relatable.
Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Ages 9-12)
What’s wrong with Dèja’s dad? It’s hard for Dèja to remember a time when he wasn’t in some kind of pain – mental or physical – and though adult readers will quickly make the connection with an event that happened 15 years prior, Jewell Parker Rhodes takes her young readers on a beautiful and haunting journey to uncover the answers to Dèja’s questions, and to show why 2001 still matters in 2016.
“Teaching tool” is a phrase that came to mind often as this story unfolded, and “Towers Falling” will certainly be useful in the classroom as students grapple with the connections between past and present, between the actions of a few and the impact on so many, and between disparate groups of people who are linked by invisible forces. But this book is in no way heavy-handed. It feels like a genuine exploration of the emotional and psychological impact of 9/11 on New York City and its inhabitants of all ages.