How do write about tragedy for a young audience? This is what writers of young adult fiction often grapple with. In Towers Falling, novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes does a masterful job addressing this dilemma by having her young narrator — Deja, who lives in a homeless shelter in New York City with her family as our story unfolds — learn about the 9-11 attack just as the audience does.
Set more than a decade after the attack on the World Trade Center, the novel follows Deja and her friends as they learn more about what happened on that terrible day. It turns out that, although Deja is a New York City native, she doesn’t even know there had been an attack at one point.
She has been kept in the dark. And there is a reason for that.
I won’t give the story away except to say that the novel does not shy away from the discovery of the horror of the day itself, but it is Rhodes compassion for Deja and her family that is the powerful guiding force, allowing the reader to be amazed, scared, compassionate and educated right alongside with Deja as her eyes are opened to the world in a new way. You may tear up at times, particularly when Deja and her friend, Ben, visit the new memorial, only to be stunned by its sadness and its beauty.
This novel is rich with character development and with the weaving of the historical record into the fabric of a family affected by the 9-11 events. There may be some references that might be a bit too much for elementary students — when Deja sneaks a viewing of the videos of 9-11, she is forever haunted by the images of those who jumped from the towers, the same as me and maybe you — but Towers Falling is a powerful book for middle school students, those who were born after the event and may wonder how New York City survived. It is through the stories of those like Deja that we grapple with the past.