It's 2016 and ten year-old African Jamaican American Dèja Barnes has a lot on her plate at the moment. Her family is living in one room without a window in a homeless shelter. Her father is sick, both physically and emotionally, but she doesn't know what's actually wrong with him. Her mother works all day and more if she can, while Dèja takes care of her younger brother Ray and sister Leda. On top of that, she is starting fifth grade at a new school - Brooklyn Collective Elementary.
But to her surprise, Dèja likes her new school and her new teacher, Miss Garcia. She even makes two friends - Mexican American Ben, an artistic boy who has just moved from Arizona after his parent's divorce, and the very friendly, seemingly always happy Sabeen, a proud Muslim Turkish American.
The fifth grade curriculum for the year is focused on the past and how it connects to the present and future. After exploring ways in which people connect to each other, the students go on to learn about how events do, too, particularly one event, one that Dèja knows nothing about - September 11, 2001. One day, during a study get together at Ben's house, he shows Dèja a video of that day and what happened. Dèja has never wanted to think about the past when her life was better and her family was happy, and now, she doesn't want to think about what she saw on that video either. After all, it's ancient history as far as she's concerned.
Still, when she gets home and blurts out that she didn't know about the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center being hit by two planes, her father decides to take her out of Brooklyn Collective, his daughter does not need to go to the kind of school that would teach her about that terrible event. But, Dèja wonders, why would he have such a strong, emotional reaction to her learning about 9/11? Does it have something to do with her dad's being physically and emotionally sick?
Confused and curious, Dèja is determined to find out what is really going on.
In Towers Falling, Jewel Parker Rhodes approaches the events of 9/11 slowly and carefully, so the reader has time to digest Dèja's experiences just as she does. After all, this is a character-driven coming-of-age novel and Dèja is in the driver's seat as we see her go from being completely ignorant about what happened on 9/11 to the realization that it has impacted the lives of everyone in the Barnes family every day since, as well as the lives of all Americans. In fact, the whole novel made me think of William Faulkner's words "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
As a character, Dèja was great. She is spunky, angry, combative, inquisitive, friendly, and caring. I really liked the diversity in her school and how she fit in so easily, even though her family's circumstances were so very different than her friend's Ben and Sabeen and the other students. I also like that Rhodes shows the reader that, while their families are better off financially, Ben and Sabeen's lives are not without problems, despite how things look on the surface. Most importantly, as Dèja learns about how she connects to the past, she also learns what it means to be an American, connected to other Americans.
This is a sensitively and cautiously written novel about a family in crisis facing the events that precipitated that crisis. Like so many people that were at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Dèja's father is dealing with some serious problems - guilt, respiratory distress, and a critical case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that makes it impossible for him to move forward and help himself, and Rhodes has dealt with these issues in a very age-appropriate way.
In addition, there is no bullying, as we have almost come to expect in a novel about a kid who is different from the other kids in the new school, so that was refreshing. But, be warned, there is some violence in the description of the 9/11 video Dèja watches that may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.
Ironically, I was teaching New York history to 10 year-olds in the Bronx on 9/11. When we heard the news, it was hard to comprehend at first, but as the day went by, reality hit us all. It was an unforgettable day but one that I think a lot of kids today, like Dèja, may not know about, making Towers Falling an excellent addition to what will be an important 9/11 body of work.
This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley
You can find information about the 9/11 Memorial HERE and if you are ever in NYC, be sure to go down to Ground Zero and see it for yourself (bring tissues).