Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes has to be one of the best books I have read this year. I just finished it about 10 minutes ago and I’m sitting at my computer, watching the curser flash, taking deep breathes and thinking about how I can possibly write about this book. You know when you read a book that is so incredible and means so much that your chest both hurts and feels warm at the same time? That’s how I feel about Towers Falling.
This story follows ten-year-old Déja who just recently moved into a homeless shelter with her parents and two younger siblings. Her mother works as a waitress and her father is incapable of holding down a job between his asthma attacks and inability to get out of bed most days. Déja doesn’t entirely understand her father’s situation, but she accepts her life the way it is. Until she starts at a new school, that is, and starts learning about how other people live and things about the world she had never heard of before, namely 9/11.
There is so much packed into these 225 pages. One of the incredible things about Towers Falling is how serious the subject matter is. I’m referring not only to 9/11, but also how Déja’s family is poor and homeless, how one of Déja’s best friends is Muslim and gets scared around September, what it means to be a family and an American. There are so many important conversations happening in this story and it all works so well because it is a children’s book (the back says “ages 8-12”) so it’s all explained in very basic and simple terms. Déja is also learning about all of this throughout the book, so it’s really nice to see her learning and thought process. I think the fact that Déja is learning throughout the book will be very beneficial for children reading this who are also learning about 9/11. Although, this book doesn’t have to be read by just 8-12 year olds; I thought it was fascinating to read about 9/11 through the eyes of a child who wasn’t even alive when it happened (I was only 5, but I remember the day).
Towers Falling doesn’t hold back, though. While it’s written for younger children, it doesn’t censor itself. Twice during the book, Déja watches video footage of the Twin Towers falling and she describes the plane hit, the fire and smoke, the people jumping out of the buildings. Her father tells her of his experience being in the building on the day and doesn’t leave out the more gruesome details.
While the inclusion of 9/11 is very prominent and well written, my favorite conversation in Towers Falling is what it means to be an American. This element really touched me and I think it’s very important in the context of our country at this moment with the presidential election and certain things one candidate says about who should or shouldn’t be an American. Déja is black and her mother is from Jamaica; her friend Ben was born in the U.S. and his grandmother immigrated from Mexico; Sabeen is a Turkish Muslim born in the states with her parents from Turkey. They all talk about their heritage and how it’s a big part of their identity. Sabeen and her family get harassed for the terrorist attacks, but she also shares baklava and Turkish delights with friends. I think it’s so important that this book shows not only the racism these kids sometimes receive, but also celebrates their respective identities and cultures. The lessons that they are taught in the classroom focus more on what everyone has in common rather what makes them all different. They all live in Brooklyn, most were born in New York, they are all Americans. There is an emphasis on the fact that the majority of kids’ families immigrated to America at one point in history, that a true image of Americans is a group of people of different ethnicities and skin colors and religions and social classes, not a bunch of white guys. This is a pretty sophisticated conversation, but written in the context of learning in a classroom, it becomes simple and easy to understand. It’s such an important conversation to have in a book for younger children. We want the kids in our country to grow up seeing Americans as diverse groups of people living together with the same values rather than a homogenous group of white people.
I only have one question against this book. Are ten year olds really this smart? These kids are really smart. I don’t remember being this smart when I was in 5th grade.
Towers Falling is an incredibly thoughtful and poignant love letter to America written through the eyes of a curious, caring ten-year-old and I don’t think I would have wanted to read about our country any other way.