PW Talks with Jewell Parker Rhodes

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In Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown), set 15 years after 9/11, 10-year-old Dèja learns about the terrorist attack in school, not realizing its catastrophic impact on her own family. The middle grade novel has resonated with readers, selling, per the publisher, 170,000 copies in all formats to date. PW spoke with Rhodes about the healing power of storytelling and what she wants children to take away from reading the book.

What prompted you to write a book about 9/11 for children?

Writing about 9/11 was not my idea at all. My editor at the time, Liza Baker, said, “There are so many children who know nothing about 9/11. Why don’t you write a book?” And I said no. But then I thought to myself that children really deserve a safe space in which to talk about these events. They are our citizenry; they are going to be charged with keeping our nation safe in the future.

Afterwards, I found out about a school in Brooklyn, right across the river; they saw everything happen on 9/11. That school opened their arms to me and said, “Come and be with us.” They were very much like I was: traumatized by the 9/11 experience. They weren’t teaching it. They did not want to teach it, it was too much of a struggle for them.

When I presented my book in the school, the kids were so curious but lots of teachers were crying, they said they still didn’t want to teach it. What I discovered was that was very typical of parents, teachers, librarians who’d lived through it. They did not want to talk about it. The trauma was still so present. It was that sense that history is not so far past. I asked them if they were doing anything about the Holocaust. Teachers could teach about the Holocaust, but they could not bring themselves to teach about 9/11.

Why are you so adamant that children should be taught in school and at home about 9/11 by the time they reach their teens?

I was Zooming with a school in Connecticut. The mother was sitting on the couch, next to her son, who was in the class. The mother was one of the flight attendants scheduled to work on the Boston plane that flew into the towers. She said that day, she was going to go to work, but something told her not to, and she didn’t. She said, “I survived,” and she had never told that story before to her son. You could see his eyes getting big, him realizing that he could have lost his mom‑that he might never have been born.

The other thing that helped me overcome my own trauma related to working on Towers Falling—I cried most of the time while writing it—is that a professor friend of mine we gave early ARCs to was teaching the book to her class at a university. Some of these 19- and 20-year-olds literally thought 9/11 was an accident—and these are people who were studying to be teachers. And so what we have is a circumstance in which adults are so traumatized that they’re reluctant to teach it, and it’s not mandated that it be taught to children, to younger students. We could have generations of kids who won’t understand, because of teachers who don’t understand, that it was actually a terrorist attack. Having a space in which parents and teachers, adults, can talk about it is so, so, so important.

I also think that it became even more important to know about 9/11 in the past few years because of what has taken place since—the pandemic, the economic crisis. I think that in some ways adults’ response to all of that is anchored by the trauma of 9/11. We’ve become much more skittish and much more fearful. What I tell kids is that I want them to remember, as I do, that after 9/11 for the most part, there was such unity in America. We had notions that for patriotic reasons, Americans would do anything—that was the feeling that I still remember after 9/11.

Why do you advocate for adults telling children stories about painful life experiences?

There is a healing process that happens with storytelling. A lot of adults need a child to say, “Tell me your story.” That’s good, not only for the relationship but also for the adult—like Dèja’s dad. We sometimes patronize children, or we keep from them things we think they’re too young to know about. Children are very wise: they deserve a chance to know. That was an important point for me, that it’s Dèja who says, “Dad, tell me your story”—that it’s Dèja who leads the family on the path to healing.

In Towers Falling, there’s Dèja, an African American girl. There’s also Ben, who’s white and wears cowboy boots, the son of an army veteran. His parents are getting a divorce and now he’s in New York City with his mom. There’s Sabeen, a Muslim girl, who says, “I’m a Muslim American, but every year on 9/11, my family, we tend to stay home and be careful.” There’s all kinds of kids, yet these three represent the diversity of our country. They come together and become the best of friends, and share information, share knowledge. To me, that’s the hope for the future. Dèja didn’t know about her dad or about 9/11: there’s so much that she learns. It’s when she goes to the 9/11 Memorial with Ben that she really begins to appreciate the interconnectedness of not only the past but also the present.

How did you choose to handle the violence of the subject matter for young readers?

There’s always the question of how much violence to show in a 9/11 book for middle grade, for young people. I felt very committed to the scene where Dèja sees on the computer the Towers being attacked. Some people disagreed with me doing that. But I felt that it would create empathy in that moment, to see and to understand. I also wanted to make the point that due to technology, we can see the towers being attacked over and over and over again. We can’t see the Civil War repeating. We have another kind of trauma: we risk having our children misinformed because they only see the physical impact upon our nation. They don’t feel how for many of us, all across the U.S., we came together to serve as best we knew how. We rose up—not unlike the Survivor Tree, we were not going to be buried under the rubble, we were going to rise. My novel, and other stories about 9/11, helps remind kids that it’s not just what you see in that video: it’s also the feeling of what we as a nation did to stand together to protect our home.

Besides informing children that there once was a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, what do you want them to know after reading Towers Falling?

History is alive, history is personal. I wanted to remind students that America has been resilient when we try in our own imperfect way to make our nation a more perfect union. What did the Constitution try to achieve? The welcoming of immigrants in our founding documents, what was that trying to achieve? The freedom of religion in our founding documents, what was that trying to achieve? Those ideas are part of the American Dream. So when you hear people who are talking against things that are in our founding documents, you need to be a critical thinker and ask if that is really what our Founding Fathers had in mind. We’re not a perfect nation, but nonetheless for 400 years, we have strived to do better.

A version of this article appeared in the 04/26/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Hard Lessons

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