Books About 9/11 for Middle and High Schoolers to Talk About the 20th Anniversary

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It’s tough to believe that 20 years have passed since 9/11. Even as a young child I can remember the fear and chaos from that day, even if I didn’t fully understand it myself. It was one of the first instances I can remember of the adults in my life being uncertain about what was happening and what would happen next. What’s even tougher to believe is that I now teach students who weren’t even born when 9/11 happened.

It can be hard for me personally to know what to say or how to describe what it was like that day. I was nearly six years old and only knew that things were terrifying and I couldn’t go to cheerleading practice. So I tell students if they ask or if it relevant to class discussions what it was like to remember the switch from feeling safe to feeling incredibly unsafe in a day. The entire world shifted. Now, I’m old enough to see major historical events I witnessed as a child in updated textbooks and as something considered as “historical fiction”, even though I still think 2001 was “just a decade ago”.

Plenty of media has been made in the last 20 years, but it has gotten easier to find more children’s and YA literature on 9/11. If you’re a teacher, a parent, or even a kid or teen looking for accurate, well-written books that explain what happened during 9/11, I’ve found several that could work in your favor.

Keep in mind that due to recent events in Afghanistan, there may be even tougher conversations about 9/11 and the U.S.’s involvement in the War on Afghanistan. Some of these books also have Afghani perspectives on having Americans in their country, but the majority of them focus on a more U.S. perspective. Other teachers have paired works by Malala Yousafzai or Khaled Hosseini to give a sense of how the war impacted civilians.

No matter how you use these books, they are certain to generate a valuable discussion.

How Kid’s Books About 9/11 Helps Their Understanding of the Event

Stories from their relatives or teachers give them a glimpse of what occurred as well as what they learn in their history classes. However, English Language Arts teachers know that books can open new pathways to productive dialogue and learning. Having characters their own age speak about their perspectives is a lot easier to understand than a documentary. When I assigned Refugee by Alan Gratz as a choice for a coming-of-age unit, a lot of students said how reading the stories of the three kids from each time period helped them better understand what was happening and why they had to flee their respective countries. Making history relevant to kids means giving them relevant experiences. And though most of us know why 9/11 is relevant and still impacts us today, those who were too young to remember it or weren’t even born yet need something to connect with that they can understand for the best impact.

Some of my favorite choices I’ve read or taught in some capacity are listed down below along with their advantages and limitations.

Ground Zero by Alan Gratz

I find Gratz’s books to be some of the most accessible historical fiction books for kids of many ages. Though the target audience tends to be around late elementary and early middle school, many of my high school students enjoy them as well. I will admit that sometimes they can have cheesy moments or oddly-phrased sentences that are meant to clue kids in on what is going on, but it’s nothing that takes away from the main focus of what happened and what the characters have to do to survive.

Ground Zero is one of Gratz’s newer books and takes place both during 9/11 as well as years ahead into the War in Afghanistan. The main characters include Brandon, a nine year-old boy who goes to work with his father in the trade center, and Reshmina, an Afghani girl whose family harbors an American solider named Taz. While Brandon fights for his life in the World Trade Center, Reshmina fights against her brother’s wishes to join the Taliban while hoping for a better world.

I won’t go into spoiler territory, though I will say that Gratz presents both characters fairly in their actions and why they choose to do what they do throughout the book.

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Unlike the other books I’ve mentioned, this middle grade level story tells the perspective of four different kids in different parts of the U.S. on the days leading up to 9/11. Each character has a unique story and why they are at different airports, but their stories are meant to weave together.

The ending was definitely appropriate for late elementary to early middle schoolers, enphasizing kindness towards everyone. This was put in contrast with the Islamaphobia towards one of the characters and their family in the book. But you’ll have to read it for yourself to know.

In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers: The Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months, and Years after the 9/11 Attacks by Don Brown

Don Brown has a talent for breaking down historical events for readers to understand while also including a ton of relevant, reliable sources to bring the story together. He is probably best known for his graphic novel Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which captures the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in Louisiana. In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers accomplishes an empathetic, truthful narrative of what happened that day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It is short, but concisely reports the information with brilliant illustrations.

The only major downside is that the title is slightly misleading, as it spans just one year after the attacks and acknowledges events — such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden — in the notes at the end of the book.

Brown also wrote a graphic novel for the Actual Times series called America is Under Attack: September 11th, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell that is similar, but there is a much more personal feel to his latest book. For one thing, it begins from the perspective of a man who is there to film a documentary on FDNY and like Brown’s other books, follows a path of survivor’s statements. It does a wonderful job of showing just why America was angry while also acknowledging and condemning the rampant Islamaphobia in the aftermath. It also ends on a note of hope, which we can all use a little bit more of, right?

I Survived: The Attacks of September 11th, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis

One of many in the best-selling I Survived series, this book is perfect for elementary-aged kids or for older kids that like fast-paced and action-packed books. Recently, it has been adapted into graphic novel form. Both tell the story of Lucas, a boy who loves football and looks up to his father and Uncle Benny. Both his father and uncle are firefighters for the FDNY.

The book is honest about the events of 9/11 without, as one Amazon review put it, “sugarcoating” anything.

Other Teaching Materials to Pair with the Books

One or two books alone can do wonders, but giving kids the chance to see other sources to match the stories they are reading helps reenforce the knowledge they’ve learned.

9/11 Memorial & Museum Educational Materials

Pentagon Memorial Educational Materials

U.S. Department of Education

University of Pennsylvania: Teaching an inclusive history of 9/11

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