Ever since I was lucky enough to see Jewell Parker Rhodes speak at a publisher’s preview about her book Ninth Ward in around 2010, I have been a huge fan of hers and everything she’s written. I’ve read both her children’s and adult titles, and I’ve never been disappointed in her writing. From Bayou Magic to her Marie Laveau trilogy, I find her style warm, lyrical, and engaging.
There is a title of hers I hers I have been avoiding, however, despite its popularity at my last school: Towers Falling. Yes, I am one of many New Yorkers who was here on 9/11 and prefers not to talk about it. While I was a public librarian, I remember that every early September, children would approach the reference desk asking me to share my “New York 9/11 story” with them. That’s when I came to the realization that, while, for me, September 11, 2001 felt like it had just happened, most of the children I worked with at the library were too young to have remembered it (of course, now, I only work with children who hadn’t even been born yet). In fact, many of these young patrons’ parents hadn’t been living in the country at the time, so their public librarian became the default interviewee. I remember both hating to drudge out my same old sad story, year after year, while also thinking it was important and vital to share these memories with young people who really had no concept of what that day was like.
As I said, despite being a big JPR fan, I was hesitant to read Towers Falling because I simply did not want to rehash that day. In fact, in the author’s note, Rhodes says that it was never her intention to write about 9/11: She found the subject, “Too hard emotionally. Too hard, technically, to convey such history for middle grade students.” Luckily, for those reluctant to relive that day, Rhodes sets the novels 15 years after the event, while still managing to give readers a sense of what 9/11 was like.
When fifth grader Déjà starts learning about the towers in class, she can’t figure out why she should care: It happened long ago to people she didn’t even know. Through lessons from her teacher, Miss Garcia, about connections and community, and discussions with her new friends, Ben and Sabeen, Déjà begins to understand how the attack on New York has changed her neighborhood, school, and even her own family.
While reading Towers Falling, I was reminded of all the times I’ve had to have difficult conversations with students, whether they were about race or gender or any other topic fraught with emotions and misconceptions. At one point, Déjà’s father begins to object to his daughter knowing anything about 9/11, saying that she’s too young to learn about such a traumatic event. At times, Déjà, Sabeen and Ben feel as if their teacher is talking around 9/11 instead of talking about it. Because Déjà and her friends don’t feel as if they’re getting a clear picture of what happened that day, they start doing their own research. When they start watching videos of the planes crashing into the towers without an adult to help them navigate the complicated and delicate questions that arise, they start jumping to their own (misinformed) conclusions. If teachers and parents don’t address the questions and concerns of their respective classrooms and families, quite often children will seek out information on their own, sometimes with less-than-ideal results. This book was a good reminder to lean into the difficult questions and provide a safe, welcoming space that empowers children to ask them.
When I was teaching students about George by Alex Gino at my last school, staff members there helped me frame it through the eight cultural identifiers (which have now been expanded to be more inclusive). Using these parameters, it’s not hard to find the intersectionality in Towers Falling. For example: Déjà and her family live in a shelter, but she attends a wealthy, fully-resourced school (Socioeconomic Status or Class); Ben is of Latinx descent, Déjà is Black (race); Déjà’s father has difficulty breathing and often has episodes that appear to be panic attacks (Ability); Sabeen’s family is Muslim and are of Turkish descent, and her mother speaks English, Turkish, and Arabic (Religion, Geographic/Regional Background, Language); and Déjà’s father doesn’t want to teach her about 9/11 because he thinks she’s too young (Age). All of the different, intersecting identities at play, in addition to a gentle, yet straight-forward depiction of the events of September 11th make this title a great choice for teachers and classroom discussion.
Until my I’m finished with my next Middle Grade title….