Children’s Book Authors Reflect on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

Children’s books are often an introduction of a difficult topic or event, and an avenue to discussion in classrooms and family groups. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we asked four children’s book creators — Caroline Brooks DuBois, Sean Rubin, Alan Gratz and Lauren Tarshis — about their books.

Caroline Brooks DuBois — The Places We Sleep

Caroline Brooks DuBois

Parnassus Musing: What inspired you to write about 9/11?

Caroline Brooks DuBois: Sept. 11, 2001, like John F. Kennedy’s assassination for my parents, or the Challenger explosion of my youth, is one of those moments where you know exactly where you were, what you were doing, and maybe even who you were with when you found out about it or witnessed it.

Pregnant and working as a copywriter in downtown Nashville when 9/11 occurred, I feared bringing a child into such a frightening and unpredictable world. In the years that followed, my brothers and my brother-in-law were all called into active duty and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. These events inspired Abbey’s story. I wanted to write about how world events have rippling effects on individuals and familial relationships in unexpected ways.

PM: How did you deal with writing about this emotional topic?

CBD: Abbey’s coming of age story unfolded naturally in poetry, perhaps as a lyrical way to process 9/11. I think of writing mostly as pure creation and communication, but it has therapeutic value too, especially journaling. Each poem I wrote after the weeks and months following Sept.11 helped me to cope with the stress of the times. Being creative can battle one’s sense of helplessness in the face of things we cannot control. And writing is something anyone can do if they have pencil and paper or a device. Writing allows the space to think, be present, or just share. It can ground you and help you navigate life thoughtfully.

PM: What message do you hope readers take from your book?

CBD: I hope The Places We Sleep will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Sean Rubin — This Very Tree

Sean Rubin

PM: What inspired you to write about 9/11?

Sean Rubin: While many books begin with an author approaching an editor with an idea, for this book the process was reversed. My editor, Christian Trimmer, asked if I would be interested in doing a book on the Survivor Tree. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the story, but after doing some research, I realized it was an amazing opportunity — a chance to talk about 9/11 in a way that was appropriate for younger readers.

PM: How did you deal with writing about this emotional event?

SR: This Very Tree could be a tearful book to write. Fortunately my wife, Lucy Guarnera, is a psychologist with special training in trauma treatment and recovery. She helped me to think about the tree as a survivor of trauma, and so the tree’s emotional responses and recovery are hopefully familiar to many who have been through traumatic events.

PM: What message do you hope readers take from your book?

SR: I’m hoping This Very Tree creates a space for children and their adults to discuss 9/11 as a personal tragedy. I worry we lose that thread sometimes. I also hope it reminds readers that we’re often more resilient than we may think.

Alan Gratz — Ground Zero

Alan Gratz. Photo by Wes Stitt

PM: What inspired you to write about 9/11?

For years, young readers have been asking me to write a book about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And I was always reluctant. I had tried to write about that day in a different book, 10 years ago, and could never get the story right. It was still too raw for me and my then-editor, even a decade later. But a couple years back I did the math and realized that kids in school today — from kindergarten to their senior year of high school — were all born after 9/11. They didn’t experience it the same way we adults did. They had a lot of questions about that day, and no idea, really, what effect it had on the world they were born into. With the 20th anniversary of the attacks coming up this year, I thought the time was right to try to tackle it.

PM: How did you deal with writing about this emotional event?

AG: I thought, “It’s been 20 years now. You can do this, no problem.” But as soon as I started researching my story and reliving everything that had happened that day and since, all those emotions I thought I’d put behind me came flooding back. I’ve written about a lot of challenging topics — the Holocaust, war, refugee journeys, other terrorist attacks — but no book was as hard for me to write, emotionally, as Ground Zero. I’m glad I did it, and I’m very proud of the book, but it was emotionally draining.

PM: What message do you hope readers take from your book?

AG: Though emotionally difficult, writing Ground Zero did help me confront some of my still-lingering, buried feelings about that day. I hope it has the same effect on the adults who read it. As for its middle-grade readers, its true intended audience, I hope it provides an idea of what a frightening, confusing, and momentous day 9/11 was for the adults in their lives, and gives them an insight into a pivotal moment in recent American history. And of course I hope it’s a book they can’t put down and keeps them turning the pages.

Lauren Tarshis — I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001

Lauren Tarshis. Photo by David Dreyfuss

PM: What inspired you to write about 9/11?

LT: My I Survived series has covered a huge range of events that have shaped history, from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Ancient Roman times through the Revolutionary War and up to modern-day disasters like the California Wildfire. But when I began the series, more than 10 years ago, I had planned to only cover long-ago natural disasters. But right away, kids began to request titles that they wanted to know about, and 9/11 was at the top of the list. I probably received 2,000 emails from kids, and every time I went to a school kids would ask if I was writing about 9/11.

At first, I was certain I would not cover the topic. How could I write about this for such young readers? Why were they asking about it? How could I explain this complex, terrifying event to young children? But then requests began to come in from teachers and librarians and parents, looking for a way to answer kids’ questions about this topic. After I began to understand that part of the role of my series could be to find appropriate ways to help kids understand even very complicated topics.

I wanted to somehow share what happened that day, how it impacted our country, without introducing aspects of the story that were likely overwhelming to readers. I created a bigger “front story” for this book than in many others. It’s really the story of the son of a firefighter who has taken refuge in football as a way of coping with family issues – his beloved dad was injured in a warehouse fire a few years before the story opened, and it caused the father to withdraw emotionally. So for Lucas, football is not just his passion but a coping mechanism. And then he gets a concussion, which ends his football career. This is a 9/11 story, but the story of Lucas is layered on top, and the experience he and his father have on 9/11 brings them back together.

My hope is the story is that introduction to the topic that will satisfy kids’ curiosity and help them understand 9/11.

PM: How did you deal with writing about this emotional event?

LT: So many of the books in my series are dark, deeply troubling, and connect me with people — directly or through research – who have experienced grief, loss, and upheaval. But 9/11 — like the Holocaust — is a catastrophe that was human made. And those events are always more difficult to write about than natural disasters. It was very painful to write about 9/11 — every second of the event is documented through audio, video, testimony, oral histories, meticulous newspaper accounts, photography … even the cockpit recordings are available. And so during the research process I was truly subsumed, brought back to the terror of that day. It was very difficult.

PM: What message do you hope readers take from your book?

LT: The underlying theme of all of my I Survived books is resilience, how humans can cope with challenges and loss with the help of their families and friends, how healing is a process that doesn’t happen quickly or easily but most often does happen. One might think that writing all of these books would make me more fearful — all these tragedies, all this loss. But what I have discovered — over and over — is that people have a remarkable capacity to move forward, even after devastating losses. Again, it isn’t a quick process, and there will be scars. But people have the capacity to stay in the world, feel joy again. That makes me feel hopeful, and I want to convey that to my readers.