I was six-years old-when the Twin Towers fell. It was the first Tuesday of the school year, the first day of art class. I was the first kid to get picked up, before the teachers even heard what happened. Before the pick-up line stretched around the parking lot and into the street.
It’s always felt weird to be on the cusp of memory for such a horrific tragedy. Kids a few years younger than me don’t remember it. Kids a few years older than me understood what was happening in a way that my six-year-old brain just couldn’t do yet. Many of my memories from that day are crisp and vivid. Sitting down in my grandpa’s chair in our back room with my clear, plastic dinosaur lunchbox from the Museum of Natural History. Eating a fruit roll-up while watching CNN news coverage of the attacks. My mom picking me up and putting me in my car seat. The adults gathered around the television in the kitchen around our wooden kitchen table.
And then I look at kids now like my mom’s friends’ kids or my little cousin, all of whom were born after the attacks. I’ve wondered from time to time if they know. If they know how much violence has seemed to be on the news lately. I wonder how they will handle the realization that the world is a messy place, if they have had it already.
When it comes to tough issues like this, I often turn to books. For me, reading has always been a tool for building empathy and compassion as it is for entertainment or the thrill of a well told, well written story. My favorite young adult novel about 9/11 is David Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law.
Recently, I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time. Because of where I live in New Jersey, I know plenty of people whose relatives were in some way connected to the attack and knew people who knew people involved. I’ve passed by the plaques in my library for the two people from my town who were lost and seen countless local memorials. I didn’t know anyone personally who was there, but I still felt overwhelmed being at the Memorial, seeing the two gaping voids where the towers once stood. It’s impossible not to feel some
More recently I read the middle grade novel Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which gave me the answers to the questions I’ve been having about 9/11 and answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking myself. A novel like Towers Falling reaffirmed my belief in the power of books to develop empathy. This book is not just for eight to twelve year olds. It is a book that everyone should read. It’s the kind of book that will make you a better human and bring you closer to understanding the incomprehensible.
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
Writing about tragedy is hard. Writing about tragedy well is even more difficult. And writing about tragedy for an audience just entering double-digits seems to be a Herculean task. However, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ newest middle grade novel Towers Falling tackles topics like 9/11, diversity, Islamophobia and homelessness in a way that is fresh, funny at times and heartbreaking, with a sense of honesty that jumps off the page.
Towers Falling doesn’t feel like an “issue book.” Instead, it’s a testament to the power of kids to the be the mediators of issues and restored my faith in the ability of children to handle these issues and only see a path forward instead of backward. Set fifteen years after 9/11, this is the story of how kids born after the attacks navigate learning about what happened.
The kid characters were one of the brightest highlights of this book. Narrator Dèja’s voice-from her confusion to her anger to her intense feelings of alienation-felt so real as I was reading that she often came across as a real person-more so than most other books I’ve read. Her words and emotions drew me into the story, and each change to herself is so felt, so tangible, that readers will feel themselves pulled into each plot point.
Her friends’ characterization was handled with equal care. Ben, who moved from Arizona to NYC, is the generous friend Dèja didn’t realize she needed and often the bearer of harsh realities when Dèja encounters a new, puzzling situation. Her other friend, Sabeen, whose struggles because of her devout Muslim faith was characterized so brilliantly and compassionately well, was another bright point in this book.
Books like Towers Falling, which include diversity in a non-didactic, intriguing way and present it as a normal part of growing up are so valuable, not only for their middle grade audience, but for their young adult and adult audiences as well. Parents of middle graders will learn just as much-about their children and themselves-from reading this book.
Dèja’s family-and her homelessness-is another aspect of this book that was handled well. While I longed for more scenes showing Dèja interacting with her family, her situation is depicted in a sensitive albeit heart-breaking way. It was also poignant to see how Dèja, with the help of her classes and friends, was ultimately able to help her father overcome his demons and help the family ultimately move forward. If you’re looking for a heartbreaking and heartwarming story about family, and about fathers and daughters in particular, then this is the book for you.
Dèja’s teacher, Miss Garcia, and the attitude of her school’s curriculum in general was another high point of this novel. While the complete lack of any mention about core standards and standardized testing felt a tad unrealistic, the message that Parker provides about the power and importance of education is key. This book shows that knowledge is power.
While singular elements and characters of this novel were particularly well done, overall the book delivered a beautiful, eloquent message about self-discovery and the interconnections of personal and cultural histories across generations. It also delivers a good story, one of growth and loss, tragedy and small victories. Accompanied by a writing style that felt immediate and intimately close, there’s really not much about this novel that wasn’t a complete home run. When I got this book, I was told that it was said to be spectacular. And while I was skeptical at first, I now know why and you should go find out, too.