Elem. – This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth

Rubin, Sean. This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth. Henry Holt and Company, 2021. 978-1-250-78850-4 p. 48. $18.99. Grades K-4. 

This is a story about a tree, a survivor tree, to be accurate. But, it is also a story about the resilience of our nation, a tribute to first responders, and the restorative power of humanity. This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth by Sean Rubin is profoundly moving and packs an emotional punch. A Callery pear tree was planted in the 1970’s in New York City between the newly constructed Twin Towers known as the World Trade Center. Over the years, the tree provided shade for tourists, employees of the World Trade Center, and a home for birds. It bloomed beautifully every Spring and stood tall between the two towers for many years. On September 11, 2001, something horrific occurred in New York City. Our Nation was mourning, and the tree’s home was destroyed and buried under rubble. The days that followed were difficult to maneuver, yet a shocking discovery was made after the tragedy–The pear tree had survived and quickly became known as the “Survivor Tree.” The tree was moved to the Bronx to recover, so the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation could nurse it back to health. Finally, almost ten years after the tragedy, the tree returned to its home and was planted in the 9/11 memorial. This Very Tree is told in simple words and illustrated with beautiful pictures that reveal more and more as the reader turns the pages. It shares a story of hope and healing that occurred after an immense tragedy that we experienced as a country. This book is a powerful introduction to this poignant event in our nation’s history. 

THOUGHTS: It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since New York City saw the World Trade Center fall to the ground. Since then, we have seen the literary world write to make sense of that horrific day and the days after that. This particular story, This Very Tree, resonated with me in such a profoundly moving way, and it shares a true story that may not be known to most Americans. Even the dedication will bring tears to the reader’s eyes as well as the hauntingly beautiful words written by author E.B. White in 1949 entitled: Here is New York that is at the beginning of the picture book. As much as this book is indeed emotional and heavy, it can still shine a light on hope and resilience. There is an informational section in the author’s note that explains the events of 9/11 in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness series)

Bah, Adama. Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness series). Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01663-2. 112 p. $16.95. Grades 5-8.

Adama Bah immigrated to the United States when she was two years old. Her father had come to work in the United States two years prior from Guinea. As a student she attended public school, until seventh grade when she went to an Islamic boarding school to learn more about her religion. Then, September 11, 2001, happened. Upon her return to New York City for Ramadan break, Adama experienced cruelty and hate from strangers because of her dress which identified her as Muslim; she was 13. On March 24, 2005, Adama’s nightmare of hatred and cruelty reached a horrific level. She was ripped from her home and taken into custody, but she did not know why. She was identified as a terrorist and suicide bomber, but no one could share any evidence to these acts except that she was a practicing Muslim. She was stripped of her rights, her family, her pride, and her religion. At the age of 17, she was released back to New York City under the watch of a federal ankle bracelet. Her father, through all of this, was deported. She, as the eldest child, was now responsible for the well-being of her family in New York City and Guinea. She quit school to work but still faced daily hatred, cruelty, and bigotry.  Adama was granted asylum in 2007, but she still fights hatred and bigotry to this day. 

THOUGHTS: This is a fantastic addition to middle school biography collections. The cover is not the most appealing (it appears juvenile), but the book itself is eye-opening. I’m glad I gave it a chance. The print is large with lots of white space (again somewhat juvenile in appearance), but the content is engaging and a very quick read. This is a great text to teach perspective and current U.S. history. It is one of several titles currently available in the I, Witness series.

Biography          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

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

YA Fiction – Beast; All We Have Left

Spangler, Brie. Beast. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 978-1-10193-716-7. $17.99.  330 p. Gr. 10 -12.

A loose retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story with an LGBT twist.  The Beast in this tale is Dylan, a 15-year-old freak of nature who stands at 6’6”, with pure muscle and an overabundance of hair. Looking as he does, he has a hard time fitting in and zero luck so far with girls his age. Fortunately he is able to have some degree of social acceptance because of his friendship with one of the most popular kids in school J.P., a wealthy, manipulative golden boy who keeps Dylan close to be an enforcer for his loansharking business at school.  After a particularly bad day at school, Dylan steps out on the roof of his house and falls which lands him in a cast and in therapy for self-harming teens.  There he meets the artistic and beautiful Jamie, and they immediately click. Jamie seems to accept him just as he is. Their relationship starts off so sweetly, but before long we discover a crucial piece of information that Dylan missed when he zoned out during his therapy session; Jamie is transgendered. Though the news comes as a shock, Dylan and Jamie have a real connection, and Dylan tries to make sense of his strong feelings for her and reconcile that with the reality of her gender.  A straight forward romantic tale with the characters struggling with self-acceptance and the value of true connection. Both main characters are captivating. Dylan is smart, observant, thoughtful, funny and a bit crude at times. Jamie is strong, original, perceptive and wise. The bond between Dylan and his mother is genuine, caring, and close. THOUGHTS:  A good choice for libraries to add a title with a positive and multi-faceted trans character.  Recommended for older readers because of language a sexual themes.

Realistic Fiction            Nancy Summers, Abington Senior High School

 

 

Mills, Wendy. All We Have Left. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.  978-1-61963-343-8. 362 pp.  $17.99. Gr. 8 and up.

Two stories of two teenage girls whose lives are changed by the tragic events of 9/11 are presented in this alternating narrative.  Alia is a Muslim American teenager attending a creative arts high school in New York City in 2001.  When she gets in trouble at school, her parents refuse to sign her permission slip for a selective summer program for aspiring artists at NYU.  In a last-minute, desperate attempt at convincing them to let her attend the program, Alia skips school to go talk to her father at his workplace in the World Trade Center.  Fast forward 15 years. Jesse is a white American teenager whose brother, Travis, was killed in in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  After getting involved with the wrong crowd at school, she gets caught vandalizing and is ordered to complete community service hours at the Islam Peace Center, where she gains a new understanding and appreciation for the Islamic religion and Muslim culture. Convinced that she can put her life back together and bring healing to her family if she finds some answers, she begins searching for the truth about her dead brother.  Why was he at the World Trade Center on that fateful day in 2001, and what was he doing during his final moments?  Her quest for answers leads her to Alia, and she discovers that there is much more to the story than she could have imagined.  An uplifting story of healing, courage, compassion, and forgiveness, this outstanding title deserves a place in every young adult collection if only to combat the forces of hatred and fear in today’s world.  THOUGHTS: An enlightening and heartfelt read, this novel has many applications to our world today and could easily be incorporated into any social studies curriculum.  The lessons about tolerance and acceptance that run throughout the book would spark excellent discussions in classes studying various world cultures.  Information presented in the book about the Islamic religion and Muslim culture could also be useful as an introduction to the Muslim way of life.  It would be interesting to have students compare common misconceptions of Muslim culture and Islamic religion with their realities.  In addition, references to ISIS, the building of the World Trade Center, 9/11 itself, and changes in the U.S. since 9/11 are relevant to any U.S. or contemporary history course. To really make history come alive, pair this title with Jim Dwyer’s 102 Minutes, or hand it to students prior to a field trip to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.  A must-have for high school libraries!

Historical/Realistic Fiction                  Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area High School

Middle Grades Realistic Fiction – Towers Falling

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Towers Falling.  New York: Little Brown and Company, 2016.  978-0-316-26222-4. 228 p.  $15.99. Gr. 4-7.

Ten year old Déja Barnes is starting 5th grade in a new school, and she is coming from some difficult circumstances. Her family is living in a homeless shelter; her father is suffering from severe anxiety and a chronic cough; her mom works hard at two jobs but is unable to make ends meet, and Déja needs to step up to take care of her younger siblings.  Déja starts the year with some trepidation and a bit of a chip on her shoulder, but she is quickly befriended by two new classmates Sabeen, a Muslim girl, and Ben, a Mexican American boy recently moved to NYC from Arizona. When their teacher begins a new study unit on the 9/11 tragedy, the three classmates learn much about themselves and their community and how the fallout from the historic event affected the lives of so many. The novel does not delve too far into the details of the terrorist attack, but it explores the tragedy in more human terms. The teacher and the author focus on the ideals and values that bring Americans and people together, not what breaks us apart. The novel also addresses some difficult issues such as homelessness, poverty, prejudice, fractured families, and survivor guilt with sensitivity.  THOUGHTS: Rhodes’ novel is a thoughtful introduction to the historical events that still resonates over many aspects of American life.   This title would make a good choice for a class reading selection to introduce the topic of 9/11 without going into the full horror of the event.  Teachers Guide with curriculum connections for history and social studies available on the author’s website at: http://jewellparkerrhodes.com/children/teaching-guide-towers-falling/.

Realistic Fiction               Nancy Summers, Abington Senior High School