Books for Students about September 11th

Do you remember September 11th?

I clearly remember being woken by my Mom with the news and then being engulfed by the events that unfolded in the aftermath. I was in college, but living at home. At the time, 24-hour news had only recently become more common, and without an awareness that it might be unhealthy, I watched ALL OF IT.

For those of us who lived through that time, 9/11 was all-encompassing. Practically every car had a U.S. flag attached to the window in the weeks and months that followed. Any remark about a plane brought anxiety. Paranoia and fear took over the minds of many Americans and it resulted in some really awful Islamophobia. The United States started two wars, and they were overwhelmingly supported by our elected officials. There was no aspect of our culture that was left unscathed.

This Month’s Book List

Reading through books for this month’s curated list was an odd experience. I really didn’t categorize the events of 9/11 as “history.” The trauma of that time was so etched in my mind. I believed that my memories were clear and unblurred by time.

As I read, I found that I was incorrect. I had the privilege to forget how pervasive and abusive Islamaphobia was towards Muslim Americans. The impact of that hatred has been longstanding. Also, the shock that came with the circumstances of 9/11 is now a foreign fear to my jaded 21st-century mind. To relive the days that followed through these stories made me recognize how much I was changed by it the experience. This was a difficult month of reading, but it was also important.

All of these books are beneficial in some way and I list their specific attributes in the review below. Admittedly, I did have some favorites. The Memory of Things discussed the trauma of 9/11 in realistic terms and it was a compelling read. Also, Ground Zero was simply mesmerizing. Finally, Hope and Other Punchlines was just a fantastic book. I would suggest adding a few to your classroom library so you can expand your students’ ability to #neverforget beyond just one day of class.

Let me know if you have any questions about these books in the comments!

Historical Fiction and 9/11
Hope and Other Punch Lines

Hope and Other Punch Lines

(YA reading level - death, mild romance, and some mentions of alcohol abuse)

There are some books that just capture your interest from the first page. Hope and Other Punch Lines is one of those books. Buxbaum tells the story of sixteen-year-old Abbi, whose whole life has been overshadowed by 9/11. Although she was only a toddler when the towers fell, her escape from the World Trade Center was made famous by a photograph taken on that day. In the image, baby Abbi stood at the center of several survivors, clutching a red birthday balloon.

Nicknamed "baby Hope," the symbolic photograph has overshadowed Abbi from that day forward. Now a teenager, she befriends a boy named Noah, who holds his own secret connect to that same image.

The writing in this book just sparkles with authenticity and humor. I found myself reading her sentences out loud as they were both laugh-out-loud funny and so creatively descriptive. This is one of those YA books that is both for teenagers and adults.

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Up From the Sea

Up From the Sea

(middle-grade to YA reading level - some middle-grade students will struggle with interpreting the text)

This is a unique take on trauma associated with a disaster. The main character, Kai, is literally swept up in a tsunami in Japan. Lowitz witnessed the tsunami firsthand and the urgency and fear are captured well through the poetic stanza format. Although this book mainly discussed the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, it connects to 9/11 because the main character ends up visiting Ground Zero during the tenth anniversary and meeting with his estranged father in NYC.

Although the poetry proves a quick read, students should have some knowledge or interests in Japanese culture. Otherwise, they will become confounded by the many references.

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Shooting Kabul

Shooting Kabul

Shooting Kabul is that rare 9/11 story that focuses on the events from the Afghan perspective. In this case of Fadi is an aspiring young photographer who’s forced to flee his home in the months leading up to the attack on the two towers.  It would be easy to classify this story as more of an immigrant experience than a story about 9/11, but doing so would be depriving young readers of a more comprehensive novel about those awful days.  First, Fadi experiences firsthand the anger that was directed not just at Muslims, but anyone who seemed even slightly threatening in those terrible first days.  Then there’s the fact that readers will learn along with Fadi about the hardships of life under the Taliban, both from his own experiences and that of other refugees. Unfortunately, it's a situation that's now more relevant than ever now that they have returned to power.  Shooting Kabul is a wonderful story for readers who want a more all-encompassing view of all sides in the 9/11 saga.

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All We Have Left

All We Have Left

(Middle-Grade reading level - a very small amount of drug use at the beginning, vandalism)

All We Have Left tells the story of two girls impacted by 9/11. Alia's story is told from the day of 9/11 while Jesse's story takes place 15 years later. Alia is a Muslim girl who is also very much a teenager. She's not sure about her direction in life and is rebelling a  bit as a result. The book starts as she faces punishment for getting caught with a joint in the bathroom at school. Jesse is also acting out, but her reasons are different. Jesse's brother died during the terrorist attack from that day, and her family unit has crumbled in the aftermath.

This book has a YA sensibility, however, it's written with middle-grade language, so younger readers could access the text also. The story is decently engaging (albeit a little predictable), however, it does its best when it examines Muslim culture and the Islamaphobia that came about as a result of the attacks.

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Ground Zero

Ground Zero

Reading this novel was such a bittersweet experience for me. Alan Gratz does his usual, masterful job of creating a spellbinding story with two amazing protagonists and with an almost minute-by-minute review of the collapse of the two towers. Basically, I couldn’t put this book down. First, there’s Brandon, who quickly grows up as he struggles to survive the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11 in 2001.  The second protagonist is Reshmina, a young Afghani girl caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and Taliban nearly two decades later. Reshmina is forced to make a choice between vengeance or the path of peace.

I didn’t start this novel until after the fall of the U.S. backed government, and yet that only makes its lessons even more timely. Will a new generation avoid the mistakes of their elders, or will the cycle of violence continue?  I only hope that Gratz never has the need to write an epilogue.

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Eleven

Eleven

(Middle-grade reading level - no content concerns)

Books set around major events are challenging to review because authors often seem to write as though the scope of their books has to somehow equal the magnitude of the event. The fact that Alex Douglas and the other characters of Eleven are just so normal and so human is what made it so refreshing to read. Any young teenager could see themself in Alex and his struggles as he is forced through the awkward space between being a child and an adult. Still, 9/11 is not a backdrop for this standard “coming-of-age'' story, as Tom Rogers does an excellent job at capturing the tension so many of us felt on that day - wondering whether our friends and family were safe. While Eleven doesn’t have the same focus on the minute details of 9/11 as other novels, it is still an excellent read for young readers who may struggle to understand the emotional overtones of that day. 

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The Memory of Things

The Memory of Things

(Definitively YA - some swearing... the f word right in the beginning. Honestly, I couldn't imagine a teenage boy NOT using the f word as the towers fell on 9/11.... some intimacy, suicide is mentioned but never addressed directly)

Kyle is a sixteen-year-old boy who is living in NYC at the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. On the day the towers fall, he runs into a girl who has amnesia. (She may be been attempting suicide, however, this portion is dealt with delicately.) In the confusion, he ends up taking her back to his family's apartment to convalesce. The two end up consoling each other while Kyle also takes care of his brain-damaged Uncle Matt. Kyle's Dad is a first responder and his Mom and sister have been grounded in California, so the three are left alone while the rest of the family gradually makes their way back home.

The plot of this story could have gone awry at many moments and veered into problematic territory. However, the writing of this book is so honest and empathic, it avoids any potential pitfalls. Kyle is a relatively well-adjusted teenage boy while his new friend has suffered a dramatic trauma. Although this book is centered around 9/11 it's also a story about how those who lived close by were impacted by that day and how people recover from traumatic events. It is a must-read.

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We All Fall Down

We All Fall Down

(Middle-grade reading level - Some sexual innuendo, death related to 9/11)

We all Fall Down sounds just so predictable - it the story of a teen boy who’s forced to come to work with his father on what turns out to be a momentous day. Yet, it is such an engaging story that I read it in one sitting!  Walters did an excellent job crafting such a realistic protagonist in Will, but his true achievement is capturing the terror those in the south tower must have felt on 9/11.  Only 56 minutes elapsed between Flight 175 hitting the tower until it collapsed, but Walters description of the events makes it feel like time has just stopped!  Readers interested in understanding the issues that led to the attack will have to make do with only a brief discussion between Will and his father as the story of their survival takes center stage.   

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A Long Way From Home

A Long Way From Home

(Middle-grade reading level, no content concerns)

Rabia, a girl fleeing Afghanistan after the arrest of her father, and Colin, a boy traveling home from London, are the two fictional protagonists of this 9/11 story. They were both aboard a plane that was diverted to Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. In each case, the two are worried about family and their ability to find their way home. While the true history from the event is an easy setup for drama and emotion, the tale lacked much of what made the true history intriguing. Many of the detail is caught up in the minutia and are devoid of authentic emotion. If a student is already interested in stories about 9/11, this book would be a good pick. Otherwise, teachers are better served by choosing other books on this list.

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Nine, Ten: A September 11th Story

Nine, Ten: A September 11th Story

(Middle Grade reading level - No content concerns)

A fast-paced read for the middle school set, Nine, Ten explores how the dynamics of how four teenagers' lives changed with the events of 9/11. Naheed is a Muslim girl in Ohio who is struggling with some bullying because of her hajib. Sergio is a Math whiz who has had a tough upbringing in NY and has recently made friends with a firefighter. Will is in Shanksville, PA, and still dealing with the loss of his father in the previous year. Finally, Aimee lives in LA. She's concerned about he parent's relationship and misses her Mom, who is in NYC for business.

The four stories all end up connected to 9/11 in some way. Most of the four overlapping stories take place in the days preceding 9/11 and then the ending jumps to the year after. I found the anticipation that built with these stories was the most nerve-racking portion of the book, although some of the endings were left more to the imagination. I find that this book would be best for a more sensitive student who might struggle with the trauma of 9/11 itself.

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Just a Drop of Water

Just a Drop of Water

(Middle-grade reading level - I wouldn't suggest this book to Muslim students, it would be needlessly upsetting for them to relive this experience.)

This book was very different from the other 9/11 books I read because it focused very closely on the unjustified backlash against Muslim Americans after the attacks. The action unfolds in Florida, near where one of the hijackers was located. The story becomes quite engrossing as Jake's friend becomes embroiled in the controversy, primarily because his family has a Muslim background. Although I found myself frustrated with Jake's character, I also recognized that his confusion and anger was typical of the time. This story is realistic in its focus, but that realism makes the storyline a bit dark. Still, I think the book would be quite popular among middle-grade students.

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Towers Falling

Towers Falling

(Young Middle Grade - No content concerns)

Towers Falling is a book for younger readers. Rhodes took the story of 9/11 and made it appropriate for middle-grade students by having it told from the perspective of a girl who was learning about the event through school. Deja is in fifth grade and she was born after 9/11. Her family has recently been unsheltered and Deja has become protective and jaded by the experience of eviction. She is suspicious of her classmates despite their friendliness - Ben a new student from Arizona and Sabeen a girl from the city who shares about her Muslim culture. Ultimately Deja opens up to them and redefines her understanding of family and familial connections.

I would suggest this book for sensitive students who also struggle with conceptual understandings of history. The simplistic approach is gentle and unassuming and would attract those who require that approach to the topic.

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