MG – Ground Zero

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-24575-2. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Brandon, 9 years old, suspended from school for fighting, is spending the day with his father, who works at the Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He sneaks away from his dad to run an errand when a plane flies into the building. It is September 11, 2001. Brandon’s life has changed forever. Decades later, and a world away, Reshmina, a young Afghan girl, also lives with the fallout of that horrific day. Life in rural Afghanistan changed drastically when the US armed forces came to push back the Taliban. While no one likes the American soldiers, most Afghans fear the Taliban as well. Alan Gratz’s take on the 9/11, attack follows the two young people, alternating between their stories. While Brandon fights for his life as he tries to escape the burning tower, Reshmina struggles with the burden of Pashtunwali, providing aid to those who request it. Reshmina comes across an American soldier injured during a Taliban ambush. Despite her hatred of the Americans, she cannot leave him to die after he asks for help. The move places her family in danger; her twin brother has begun working with the Taliban and threatens to notify them of the soldier’s presence at their home. It won’t surprise any reader that the soldier is Brandon, 18 years later. There is nothing subtle about this book. Gratz had a point to make, and he hammers it home. The two stories aren’t just parallel, but painfully structured to be identical stories – an event in one story is mirrored by a similar event in the other narrative. And Gratz does not couch his opinion that everything the US did in Afghanistan was wrong and hurtful. While the current generation of readers looks for books set around 9/11, Gratz, a master of historical fiction adventure, who single handedly has converted young readers to historical fiction fans, falls a bit flat with this story. Gratz fans will want to read it, but it will not replace gems like Refugee or Projekt 1065.

THOUGHTS: Purchase where Alan Gratz is popular, but readers may be disappointed.

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

It’s September 11th, 2001, and Brandon Chavez is accompanying his dad to work after getting suspended from school. His dad, a kitchen manager at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, is not thrilled that his son has to go with him today. He has told Brandon several times that they have to be a team, especially since Brandon’s mother passed away from cancer. While his dad is busy at work, Brandon decides to take the elevator down to the North Tower’s underground mall – but his plans are interrupted by the crash, stopping the elevator car between floors. Fast forward to September of 2019 and we meet Reshmina, who lives in a small village in Afghanistan. Her family barely scrapes by financially, mostly because the American army is fighting alongside the Afghan National Army to defeat the Taliban in what is practically her backyard. Reshmina has plenty of reasons to hate their war – her sister Hila was accidentally killed by the American army and her brother Pasoon is eager to join the Taliban, a fact that leaves Reshmina worried for his safety. She keeps out of the way of both armies until she stumbles upon an American soldier in need of help after a Taliban attack. Risking her family’s safety, she offers him refuge at their home. Pasoon, angered that Reshmina wants to help an enemy, decides to join the Taliban sooner rather than later and divulge the wounded soldier’s location. Each chapter alternates between Brandon and Reshmina, and their stories mirror each other until a twist is revealed at the end.

THOUGHTS: Author Alan Gratz is well-known for his action-packed historical fiction stories that are beloved by middle grade students. Ground Zero is no exception and is a must-have for middle grade libraries.

Historical Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

The Underground Girls of Kabul…New in Nonfiction


Nordberg, Jenny. The Underground Girls of Kabul: in Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. Print. 978-0307952493. 368 p. $25.00. Gr. 11+.

Jenny Nordberg, an investigative journalist, has written an engaging and extremely timely account of the lives of women in Afghanistan and the practice of transforming young girls into bacha posh. This phenomenon, found in some misogynistic cultures in which women are entirely controlled by men, involves dressing up young girls as boys in order to grant honor and prestige to a family that does not have any male children, or to allow the “male” child to escort the mother or daughters when in public. This illusion allows a family to save face in the community, and for the girl to be able to go out in society and complete activities normally open only to young boys. Nordberg discusses a few different instances in which this occurs but focuses much of her story on the life of female parliamentarian Azita and her young daughter turned bacha posh, Mehran. Azita is a strong and intelligent female, but she is hindered by her illiterate husband, his other wife (polygamy is common in Afghanistan), and her status as the mother of only young girls.  Though Azita has her flaws, the reader wants her to be able to rise above her current situation.  Nordberg must use her skills as a journalist to locate and interview many bacha posh, because though the lifestyle is common it has not been formally documented. By sharing their stories, Nordberg comments on and questions the treatment of women in a male-dominated society. She also highlights how the bacha posh struggle to define their own identities when they must revert back to being women.  Nordberg provides enough history of the wars in Afghanistan to give the reader an understanding of the women’s lives but does not bog down her story with facts and figures. She lets the interviews with the various bacha posh drive her narrative. The sheltered lives that women lead in Afghanistan will astound most modern young women in the western world and hopefully lead to discussion and action towards assisting women in this country.

305.309 Gender Identity; Afghanistan        Lindsey Myers, Peters Township High School

This is one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in quite awhile. Not only does it discuss the daily lives of women in Afghanistan, but it also highlights a unique part of their culture that had never been brought to my attention before. Though I had a general understanding of the plight of women in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern nations, the firsthand accounts were much more powerful than just hearing general reports on the nightly news. This book would be an excellent addition to a social studies unit discussing Afghanistan or women’s issues in the Middle East. This would also be an interesting pairing with the fiction book that I am currently reading, The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi. There are some difficult themes and scenes in this book (especially with regards to physical abuse of women), but since the characters are young women and Azita herself is only 28, teens can relate to them and understand their hopes and dreams of better lives for themselves and for the other young girls in Afghanistan.