Fifteen Years Later: Books for the Children Born After 9/11

Milllions of people won’t forget what happened fifteen years ago, on September 11, 2001 simply because they were adults. But a whole generation wasn’t born yet. These children and teenagers have not only to live their young lives but also to learn how navigate a world that became instantly more complicated after 9/11.

Earlier this summer, a young school librarian told me about two recent children’s novels related to the topic. On September 11, 2001, my own children were younger than the characters in these novels. My son only remembers seeing me cry, a first for him. So the idea of stories that would, fifteen years later, tell of that tragic day interested me.

I read both novels, published earlier this year, and a third one, published in 2014.  Here they are, in memory of a day that changed our country and the rest of the world.

 

Nine, Ten

A September 11 story

Nora Raleigh Baskin

I immediately loved the title and concept of Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story. The reader follows four American sixth-graders during the 48 hours prior to 9/11 and then on 9/11 and again a year after.

There is nothing fictional with 9/11, but award-winning Nora Raleigh Baskin had the great idea to create a fictional set of characters living in real America. The two boys and two girls live in different parts of the USA (Brooklyn, New York; Shanksville, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles, California; Columbus, Ohio). One girl is Jewish, one is Muslim, born from Iranian parents. One boy is African American and one is Caucasian.

The sample is varied and is supposed to represent the ethnical and religious diversity of our country, but I was surprised that no kid coming from South America or East Asia or with family from these parts of the world figured in the novel. Since I know California well (my four children attended several different schools in different parts of the state and two of them still study there) I found it unrealistic to describe a California school as a sea of blond hair and could not relate to a white California that seemed outdated, even in 2001.

The story that feels more nonfiction than fiction, mostly because of the lack of a typical plot that serves as a page-turner remains, however, a solid base to introduce 9/11 to young readers and also to discuss the more recent terror attacks throughout the world.

 

Towers Falling

By Jewell Parker Rhodes

The author took a different approach for her novel about the same topic. She created a cast of fifth graders, students at Brooklyn Elementary School and set the story in 2016, fifteen years after 9/11.

Through the disarmingly honest eyes of Deja, a ten-year-old girl, we meet Ben, the new Mexican-American kid from Arizona and Sabeen, the Muslim girl whose parents are from Turkey.

From the beginning of the story, we understand that Deja suspects her father to hide a dark secret from her. She’s sometimes angry with him for being depressed and not trying harder to hold a job. Which would mean leaving the shelter where she lives with him, her Jamaican mother, and her two younger siblings.

Despite the fact that they only met on back to school and come from different backgrounds, a spontaneous and soon solid friendship develops between Deja, Ben and Sabeen, as it often happens in elementary school. Through their schoolwork, smartly orchestrated by Miss Garcia, their caring English teacher, we discover the children’s families and realize that they are all living post 9/11 typical American lives.

Ben’s dad went to Afghanistan and since then has never been the same, triggering his separation from Ben’s mom. Ben used to live on a ranch, and although he misses the great outdoors he remains positive and explores his new home, including the subway, with a charming nerdy attitude.

Sabeen is an enthusiastic girl who lives in a pretty home, surrounded by a loving extended family. Her father is a dentist and her stay-at-home mother wears a niqab. Sabeen herself wears a veil outside of her home but is undecided about the niqab. These elements trigger comments and questions from her classmates, including Deja.

Deja is resolute to understand why she must live in a shelter and wear hand-me-down clothes while her friends live more comfortably. With determination, she convinces her dad to reveal the secret he has been holding since 9/11. He was part of a front desk security team in the North Tower and lost dear colleagues and also dozens of people, employees he saw every day, that day. The novel ends on a hopeful note with Deja’s dad finally prescribed a new medicine to help him with PTSD. The family will move to a subsidized apartment. Not grant, says Deja in her non-sentimental way, but much better.

Award-winning Jewell Parker Rhodes has written a novel that will help young readers’ parents and teachers talk about 9/11 and discuss the consequences of this tragic day on the American collective and the rest of the world. The message of the novel is that we are all Americans, regardless of our skin color, religion, country of origin, and the way we speak.

 

Fourth, fifth and even sixth graders are still very young kids who need reassurance in the face of extreme violence. Both novels treat the topic with sensibility and respect. For anyone willing to know more about the reasons behind 9/11 and the current terror attacks throughout the world, the author’s notes at the end of both books can allow deeper studies on the state of the world in 2016.

 

Just a Drop of Water

By Kerry O’Malley Cerra

Like any other American town, the author’s small Florida hometown was under shock on 9/11. But unlike others, hers was almost immediately changed since one of the terrorists had lived there. I invite you to visit Kerry O’Malley Cerra’s website and to read her own 9/11 story behind the novel she wrote. Resonating with honesty and emotion.

In Just a Drop of Water we follow seventh-grader Jake and the evolution of his friendship with Sam, an Arab Muslim boy. Told with simplicity but loaded with realistic emotions the novel spans less than a month, from September 7 to the 29. Lived through two young boys, their families and everyone in their small town, this novel is also the story of our country right after 9/11.

On a personal note, I met the author at a writing conference this winter. Moved by her presentation I wanted to get a chance to talk with her. Late at night, amidst blasting music, enthusiastic dancers and lively conversations – writers can be extroverts after a day of conference – we had the quietest and most meaningful conversation I ever got a chance to have about September 11.

 

Wherever you were fifteen years ago, I’m sure you vividly remember what you were doing when the news fell and clouded a gorgeous fall day.

In memory of that day, a classic in the world of children’s bookstores, located in the heart of New York City.

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Comments

  1. To be honest, I never thought of the challenges with children who were young or who hadn’t been born yet.I know several people who are in that situation. I think I’ll pass this onto them. Thanks Evelyne.

    • These books are all excellent, Dan. True that we tend to forget that what we’ve been through can feel so remote to other people. Susanna wrote quite well about that on her comment. History impacts generations but our perception differs whether we were alive or not and where we lived too. 9/11 has certainly marked American people more than any others, even though the aftermath affects the whole world.

  2. Definitely, me too. I’ll keep it in mind for my kids too…

  3. That early morning is still vivid in my mind and that of my oldest son, however, it’s not in my younger twenty-somethings. Although the day isn’t vivid for them, what the day signified for them and millions of others is the ‘unsafety’ they felt.
    The books you described are so important for younger kids/young adults so they can develop insight into how this affected their parents and older relatives. If they one day visit the memorial in NYC, they will gain a greater sense of what happened to our country and why the tragedy will never be forgotten.
    Thank you for great reviews.

    • Thank you, Mona. My older daughters remember their dad traveling back from Boston to California. But I didn’t put the TV on over those dark days, so what they know was learned later. You’re right about the memorial. It is a meaningful way to find out more and understand the current state of the world since the tragic day. See you around, Mona.

  4. Great reviews. My son is eligible for AARP and my granddaughter just passed her 20th birthday, but I’m glad that children’s literature is addressing real life. When I was a kid and raising a kid and the grandchild, there was little in the way of literature that felt “real.” Nice that much more is available now.

    • There was nothing for kids about major historic events, when I was a kid in France. Everything was for adults. The publishing industry is doing a great job at reaching to the children through compelling stories linked to history. See you soon, Marilyn.

  5. kerryocerra says:

    Hi, Evelyne! I remember our conversation well–deep and meaningful. I appreciated you finding me that night. Thank you for including my book here on your blog, and I do hope your own writing is going well. Peace!
    ~Kerry O’Malley Cerra

    • Such a good feeling to find you visiting my little home, Kerry. I remember our talk and your presentation very vividly. It’s not every day, in this case night, that someone touches you with grace and honesty. I still write and have actually been requested to forward my latest manuscript to an editor who was also there that night. The world can be such a loving place.

  6. This makes me think about how we relate to major events that happened before we were born, and how our relationship to those events changes over time. World War II was ancient history to me growing up in New England, though I was born only six years after it ended. Physical and economic evidence of war was 3,000 miles away, and my father, who had served as a noncom in North Africa and Italy, never talked about it — not till he and I both read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was in high school. The Vietnam War brought WWII closer. Eventually I learned how brief six years are in the life of an adult and began to understand how huge WWII loomed in the lives of the adults when I was growing up. I expect, or at least hope, that those born after 9/11 will be able to do likewise.

    • I always enjoy your posts and comments on mine, Susanna. This comment hits home. How true that we relate differently to history based on our age and place. WW II supposedly remains more vivid in Normandy now than anywhere else in France. WWI is still deeply present in eastern France. I had never met any Vietnam War Veteran until I moved to the States, although this war happens with the end of the French colonization. But I was too young and too far when I lived on France to understand. Now I start to meet younger Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. Through them, it is easier to grasp the horrors of wars and their weight on the world. Our younger children will also learn about 9/11 and the consequences of that day. It takes a while for textbooks to add fairly recent events. Meanwhile, fiction and non fiction books written for children can help them understand.
      Thank you again for your meaningful comment.

  7. This is a great topic for a blog post. It is true, we have a generation of children growing up in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. The world they live in now is very different than our world growing up. I appreciate your observations about diversity in all these books . it is interesting the stereotypes people cling to – especially in terms of California. I am going to read Towers Falling and just a drop of water.
    I thought of you and your family on 9/11 and the story you shared on NPR’s Valley Writer’s Read that concludes with your husband’s harrowing experience.

  8. Behind the Story says:

    Thank you for sharing these three books with us. I heard it mentioned several times on radio and TV that we forget how many children now alive did not experience 9/11. To those of us who are older, It seems like yesterday. To children, it may seem like just another historical event. It’s hard for us to comprehend these differences in time and experiences.

    When I was in college and then a young mother, the Vietnam War was going on. It was part of my life every day for years. I knew very few people who fought in the war, and yet I feel that thousands of events from that time, large and small, are seared into my flesh. How strange that my children had to learn about it in history books! And no matter how much they read, I feel that they won’t have the same understanding of that war and what it meant to live during that time.

    • Thank you, Nicki, for your thoughtful comment. I agree that history and its tragedies impacts us differently. I knew very little about the Vietnam War, although the conflict followed the end of the French colonization, until I moved to the USA. There, I realized how this endless violent war had left palpable scars on the American collective. I knew much more about WWII, especially because I grew up in Normandy, but again it’s in the States that I met for the first time some of the men who fought on my native soil. Leaves a whole different impact. It will be the same for children who were either too young or not born yet on 9/11. They will learn through older people what happened that day. Meanwhile, books bridge these two different experiences.

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