Building Bridges, not Walls

UnknownThis September will mark 15 years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Not yet a generation, but long enough that children who were just born are only now slipping into adolescence. So it is not surprising that there has been a flurry of books about the attack coming on the market for middle grade readers. I’ve spent the last month reading a good number of them, and one, in particular, stood out for me.

“Towers Falling” by the already accomplished author Jewell Parker Rhodes, has done a brilliant job making a difficult story compelling yet accessible for 10-year-old readers. In her capable hands, one of the most horrific tragedies in recent memory shares space with the numbing everyday tragedies so many souls on our planet endure daily.

Rhodes’ plucky protagonist, Deja, tells her first-person point-of-view narration in the short, clipped sentences you might expect from a kid who’s sharing one room in a homeless shelter with her parents and two younger siblings. Deja is mad—at the world, at her classmates, especially at her dad. His physical and mental troubles keep him unemployed and keep Deja’s family on the edge.

When Deja’s sixth grade teacher begins a month-long lesson meant to introduce the class to the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, Deja is clueless. Why is everyone staring out the window at the downtown New York skyline, looking so stricken? She’s been so busy struggling to get through every day, that she sees no purpose in looking backwards to the past.

But slowly, Deja comes to understand how the “far past” affects the “recent past” as well as the present, interwoven with the stories of her friends Ben and Sabeen, and especially in her family. The pitch-perfect characterizations of these three kids—their compassion, their vulnerabilities, and the realities of their lives in 2016—ring so true. Jewell’s feel for each one, as unique individuals, is deft. No stereotypes or tropes here.

Perhaps it’s because of this fractious election season or maybe it’s because I’m an ex-New Yorker, but in my opinion, “Towers Falling” should be required reading for ALL Americans, not just middle graders. We need its healing now.
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