Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes
If you’ve never read Jewell Parker Rhodes, you absolutely must. Her prose is light and crisp at once, and she tells a story like no other. You inhabit her characters fully, and they are strong, sensitive young women. I’ve read Ninth Ward and Bayou Magic, both of which tackle current issues and also include an intriguing thread of magical realism that’s friendly to young readers. I’ve taught excerpts from Ninth Ward to my college Composition I course, and if I was to theme a course around Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, I would absolutely include it. Therefore, I was eager to get my mitts on her newest book, Towers Falling.
Hello, nominee for Best Book of 2016. I can’t emphasize how absolutely perfect this book is for middle-school and early high school kids in 2016, as well as adults (especially teachers) who have lived through 9/11.
Here’s the story: Deja is in fifth grade, and her life is a constant struggle. Her family lives in a homeless shelter. Her mother is overworked and overtired, her father constantly sick, depressed, and unemployed. Her innocent youngest siblings are below preschool age and must be kept entertained. She takes circuitous routes to avoid raising attention to her family’s life situation, which changes at her new school. There, her fifth-grade teacher announces that they will be talking about 9/11, which puzzles all of the children. What does that even mean? All of them, ten or eleven years old in 2015-2016, would have been born in 2004-2005 (sidenote: OH MY WORD I AM OLD). She makes friends with Ben and Sabeen, where each of them deals with their struggles in being both American and part of their own family sagas. They grapple with the idea of towers falling in their own city, and what it means to their identities as American, as a consequence.
This book was made for teachers and students. I often forget, 15 years past, how my college students have been affected by 9/11 without knowing why. That their memories are murky at best and colored largely by memorializing from older family members and media. Rhodes understands this and creates a protagonist born well after the fact and refocuses this moment through her eyes. It’s smart and stunning at once. This book has a few tragic stories in it, so if you need a trigger warning, there it is. But I highly recommend it if you are interested in middle-grade fiction for yourself or kids in your life, or if you are interested in current events or recent history, as filtered through fiction. Rhodes is an author I’ve placed on a “favorites” list, because she tells a great story with poignant writing, and this newest book is no exception.