Sunday, September 11, 2011

Writing About 9/11

I didn't expect to be writing a post today. It's a beautiful morning and the outdoor beckons. But all week I have been reading and listening to commentaries on the anniversary of 9/11 and this morning I couldn't help but ponder - how do we write about 9/11 for young readers? Most of whom were not alive when the tragic event happened. How does it affect our writing choices ten years later?

I remember that morning all too well, as vivid as JFK's assassination or the Challenger disaster. For my kids, 9/11 is a defining moment for them as teens. Early out in the West, that morning we were just getting our day started when our daughter's boyfriend called to tell us to turn on the TV. Our son had just started his senior year in high school. Now as an adult, he can read novels like Spokane author Jess Walters' National Book award finalist The Zero with his own experience of the event.

But our readers know only what they hear and read about. Some children's writers have effectively used the towers as a metaphor for the pre-9/11 New York City as in the picture book The Man Who Walked Between Two Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. The Little Chapel that Stood by A. B. Curtiss is a 40 page picture book that features the respite St. Paul's church near Ground Zero offered workers and families.

I believe the most effective picture book that combines both pre and post 9/11 NYC is Maira Kalman's 2002 book "Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey." The story traces the boat's decades of service and especially how it rescued trapped people on September 11th and pumped water for four days in the ravaged city.

Many nonfiction titles have been written about the events. In 2002 twenty children's/YA authors contributed to 911: The Book of Help (Authors Respond to the Tragedy.) But was nine years ago.

I remember reading a YA novel about a girl whose mother died in the towers and she had to leave NYC for a new life with her father. I can't remember or locate the title. Anyone? Can you suggest any well written YA or MG novels that feature 9/11?
I just found a blog listing new 9/11 books, forty titles for adults and only two for children/YA readers: Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan and America is Under Attack: September 11, 2001, The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown. Why is this so?

How does 9/11 and its aftermath affect us writers ten years later? For me, I believe it's an undercurrent in my life, a feeling that America no longer stands alone. We are one world and by god we'd better figure that out - sooner than later.

Weigh in, folks. I'm just thinking aloud this morning. Has 9/11 affected your writing? Should it?


  1. A good post-9/11 YA book: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger. It's about an Indian-American girl dealing with her own cultural heritage post-9/11. 9/11 isn't the direct focus, but it certainly influences how she and her family members are perceived in their community, exposing some of the unfortunate prejudices that resulted from the tragedy.

  2. "Fordson" is a wonderful documentary film that would be good for middle schoolers and high schoolers. It focuses on the Fordson High School football team in Dearborn, Michigan. Because of the many Muslims in Dearborn the team is made up of kids of the Muslim faith and in 2009 the big game occurred during Ramadan.

    The film is about football, about Dearborn, about Muslim families, and what they have faced in the way of prejudice since 9/11.

  3. Claire, it's interesting to think about an incredibly powerful event that occurred just before, or very early in the lifetimes of most of our current readers. If writing contemporary fiction, then the new understandings/prejudices/rules of society that came out of that moment may be relevant to the social/cultural setting of the story, just like the Vietnam War is relevant in Gary Schmidt's OK for Now. Those rules define the world children are currently growing up in, and yet only readers ages 13-18 would have any memory of the day those rules began to be put in place. And the level of understanding represented in those memories would vary tremendously. For a lot of kids 10 years ago might as well be 50 years ago in their perception of time--but the subsequent rules are very much present tense.

  4. Indeed, Cheryl. And how much do they need to know about it? Yesterday on the radio they interviewed students who were performing in a 9/11 play and yet admitted that they had learned little or nothing about the event while growing up. Even the girl whose mother lost a dear friend in the Towers. The mother never talked to the girl about it and she wished her mother had. I hope young people watched the riveting coverage over the past week.