It’s been 15 years since 9/11 which means that anyone from about the age of 19 and down will have dim or nonexistent memories of that terrible day which left an ugly gash, at the very least, in the rest of us.
What an odd jolt it is to teach modern history to this tribe of newly-teenaged persons and realize they have almost no emotional response to those events. They don’t even know how many planes there were or that the Pentagon was hit. They can’t remember the slow creeping horror as we realized this was not an accident. The dumb shock of seeing gigantic towers crumple and a dust-covered throng of workers stumbling away, away from galloping storms of ash. They weren’t there, listening to the cell phone messages that smote our hearts or the eerie sound of military jets encircling our cities. They didn’t experience the new trauma of vulnerability. They don’t know where they were when they heard the news. All of it is just a historical event from before their time.
It has taken some years for me to connect that sort of historical detachment to the need for children’s literature on this subject. As titles have popped up in the past, my own visceral response has been that 9/11 is too raw a subject to hand to kids. I’ve realized, though, that children are perhaps more ready and capable of hearing about 9/11 than we are of telling the stories.
Today I’ve got four books introducing children in a range of ages, through a variety of angles, to the events of 9/11.
Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published in 2002 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
The title most accessible to the youngest audience is this gem by the one and only Maira Kalman, published just a year after 9/11.
Kalman has an uncanny knack of connecting honestly, compassionately, and perceptively with young readers. She talks to them forthrightly, in ways they can understand, without a scrap of condescension. She offers them quirky tidbits of information that would never occur to others of us to include, which act like the perfect dash of seasoning in a pot of soup. Yet she paints the entire large picture cohesively, riveting our attention and our hearts to the fortunes of one old fireboat and its heroic role on that tragic New York day.
It’s the story of the John J. Harvey, a fireboat built in 1931, retired in 1995, destined to be turned into scrap metal, but saved and lovingly restored by a grand group of friends. Restored in time to assist in a most surprising way when the unthinkable turns into grim reality in Manhattan.
Besides the engaging narrative, there is of course Kalman’s enormously tantalizing artwork, her bold colors and brush strokes and compositions are an outpouring of her vigorous self on every page. Magnificent. Even if you’re not purposing to introduce 9/11 to children, this is a story that begs to be shared. Ages 4 and up.
Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, written by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
published in 2016 by Peachtree
Another boat-ish perspective, this one with a slightly stronger expression of the tragic nature of the day.
While Kalman’s book devotes a large percentage of pages to jolly bits about the fireboat’s history and the chipper crew who salvage her, this account dives immediately into the incident.
Maira Kalman, Fireboat
While Kalman’s book shows two planes in the sky, and two towers, there is no depiction of the impact of the planes into the buildings. Gonzalez shows one plane just as its nose strikes the tower.
Thomas Gonzalez, Seven and a Half Tons of Steel
Both books illustrate the chaotic smoke emanating from the towers, but Kalman’s is impressionistic while Gonzalez’s illustrations are very realistic.
Kalman tells children that “two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers. CRASHED, CRASHED, CRASHED into these two strong buildings. The sky filled with fire and smoke. The buildings exploded and fell down to the ground. Many people were hurt. Many lives were lost.” Nolan writes, “On September 11, 2001, clouds of smoke billowed into the clear blue sky. The World Trade Center towers came down. Almost three thousand people lost their lives.”
I hope that helps you judge the emotional content of these two books. Beyond those descriptions of the crash, the remainder of both books tells an entirely different story. Kalman’s tells about the fireboat. This one tells a very cool story about the repurposing of one massive beam from the towers, into the bow of a navy ship, christened the USS New York.
It’s a terrific account, pulsing with courage and the will to move forward in the wake of tragedy.
Gonzalez’s vigorous, factual paintings will greatly appeal to children, particularly those fascinated by burly stuff such as steel foundries, massive ships, military choppers, and the like. Ages 5 and up.
America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell, written and illustrated by Don Brown
published in 2011 by Roaring Brook Press
The exceptionally-talented Don Brown presents this episode in his series of books about historical events. It’s a much more complete story for ages 8 or 9 and up.
Brown doles out details with impeccably good sense, including the kinds of weapons used, specs on the towers, and the precise times at which key events unfolded that day in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. All of this is woven effortlessly into a narrative that’s predominantly a collection of anecdotes following a number of people caught up in the disaster.
Fire Chief Joseph Pfiefer and his brother. Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, working high in the North Tower. Stanley Praimnath, the lone survivor located directly where the plane hit the South Tower. And others. Ordinary people caught up in chaos. Their stories are compelling. Some died. Some astonishingly survived. They acted with courage and compassion. Grave danger, destruction, injuries, and the death toll are factually presented here, yet the overarching note is of the beauty and dignity of humanity, of people bravely, kindly, helping one another through unspeakable crisis.
Emotive watercolor illustrations usher us immediately into the towers, smoke, and panic. An Author’s Note follows up with further statistics about the losses of that day.
Towers Falling, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
published in 2016 by Little, Brown, and Company
Finally, this middle-grade novel published this year by award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Deja is a fifth-grader from Brooklyn. Her family has just moved into a shelter, to her embarrassment, because her dad is unable to go to work. Depression, panic attacks, and a debilitating cough seem to have paralyzed him from participation in life, cast a gray pall around the man he used to be. Deja does not understand him at all.
Deja’s teachers have been assigned a new task this year, teaching about 9/11. It’s a subject more than usually traumatic for the personnel at this particular school. As Deja partners with her new friends Ben and Sabeen — a Muslim student — she learns more than she ever would have guessed about the events of that day, the meaning of home, the fabric of America, and why any of that matters.
I love that Rhodes’ angle on this was to peer into one small community — Miss Garcia’s fifth grade — and find out how events from the past impact who we are, the relevance of history to our lives and our neighbors. It’s a well-paced story, much more centered on the lives of these students 15 years after 9/11 than on the actual events of the day. I think it pairs exceptionally well with Don Brown’s account.