When I was little, I used to love the books where you would connect the dots to make pictures. Some were very easy, you could tell what the picture was going to be even before you started, but some were very complex, and you had no idea what was going to emerge.
The topic of Sept. 11, 2001 is very complex. On that day, when I was trying to comfort a classroom of terrified eighth graders — much less understand it myself — I couldn’t see the dots that needed to be connected.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. My understanding of that day and what came before and after has been much altered in the 20 years since — though never as much as during these last few weeks. And as I prepare to share that day, its causes, its meaning, and its repercussions with my children, I have to find a way to connect the dots — as I was not able to do for my eighth graders two decades ago. Books will be my pencil.
Dot 1: Shooting Kabul
Dot number one is Dec. 24, 1979. I was five, and I already knew how to duck and cover. It was the day the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It was still the Cold War, and it was the first wave of migration from Afghanistan. Fleeing conflict, conscription, and war, about 6 million Afghans fled their own country. It was 1979 when author Naheed Hasnat Senzai’s husband fled, and it was the year that became the inspiration for her award-winning middle-grade novel, Shooting Kabul.
In the book, 11-year-old Fadi and his family bribe their way out of Afghanistan. Leaving behind their home and all their belongings, Fadi’s family is careful to avoid “the checkpoints set up by black-turbaned men on the main road.” As they carefully pick their way through Kabul’s once-lively streets, Fadi remembers the day his father told them they were going to escape.
“‘It’s because of them, isn’t it?’ said Mariam, her eyes wise beyond her six years. They all knew who she meant-them, the Taliban.'”
Dot 2: The Bookseller of Kabul and Nasreen’s Secret School
The second dot is 1989: After years of occupation, war and destruction, the Soviets were leaving Afghanistan, and someone was going to fill that vacuum. Asne Seirerstad’s bestselling The Bookseller of Kabul tells the tale.
“‘First the Communists burn my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again.'”
The oppressive regime that had been born of the Mujahedeen was in charge.
In Janette Winter’s picture book, Nasreen’s Secret School, that oppression is at the center of daily life for girls in Afghanistan. In a country where art, music, and poetry once flourished, Nasreen’s father has been taken by the Taliban, her mother is missing, and her grandmother is determined to get her an education. Secret schools for girls were the only option, and the danger was ever-present. Educating girls would be a crime as long as the Taliban was in power.
Dot 3: Nine, Ten and Towers Falling
Which brings us back to September 2001, and another dot.
Nine, Ten, a middle-grade novel by Nora Raleigh Baskin, can gently lead the way to an understanding of the tragedy of 9/11. The focus is not the events of that day, but rather the story of the two days leading up to it as told through the eyes of four kids whose lives are about to be changed. Will, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is struggling with the loss of his father; Aimee’s mom has to go to New York all the time for her banking job; Naheed is being bullied for wearing the hijab; and Sergio, who lives in Brooklyn, has just made friends with an NYC firefighter. Cleverly woven, this book is a good way to start the conversation with kids, without delving too deeply into the terrible events of the day itself.
A way to continue the gentle conversation is Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. For us adults, it’s hard to imagine that there is a whole generation of children that is so far removed from that day, who see it as a remnant of the ancient past. Fifth grader Dèja is one of those kids. She and her family live in a shelter because her father is too sick to work. She doesn’t know why he is sick or why he gets so depressed. She doesn’t even know two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. When Dèja has a school project on 9/11, what she thought she knew falls away, only to find healing at the end.
Dot 4: America is Under Attack and In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers
Where to go next is more difficult. There is no way to avoid the big dot. And there is no way to make it easy for kids to understand.
Don Brown has two books about that terrible day, published ten years apart. America is Under Attack, which came out at the 10th anniversary of the terror attack, lays it all bare in a picture book style: the hijacked planes, the workers in the twin towers, the fear, the falling, all of it. Hyper-focused on an almost minute-by-minute account starting at 8 a.m., it is book best shared with an adult — and one that captures an almost incalculable immensity of feeling.
In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers is Brown’s look back after 20 years and picks up where America is Under Attack left off. There is more hindsight now, more ash, more rubble, more helpers — and more explanation. And that explanation is critical. In his second look back, Don Brown tries to explain what seems inexplicable. He reaches farther into why the Taliban would attack us, the terrible Islamophobia that came after, the attempts to stop it, and the decision to send American troops to Afghanistan.
These books can help kids work with adults to connect the dots.
We see more dots today — 20 years since 9/11 — and there will be many more to appear in future years. And there are many dots that lead up to that day that I may never find. The picture only grows more complex. But we have to try to connect them, to remember, explain, learn — and to keep it from happening again.