Today we are posting a review from guest blogger Diane Bailey Foote. Diane is Curator of the Butler Children's Literature Center at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. Thank you, Diane!
By Jewell Parker Rhodes. Little, Brown, 2016. 9780316262224. Click here to purchase.
Published in 2016, this novel set in current-day Brooklyn is suitable for a revisit every September. To adults, 9/11 may not seem that long ago, but for young readers who were born after–or infants during–the tragic day it may as well be ancient history.
Here, 10-year-old Deja is coping with a number of challenges, all stemming from her family’s homelessness due to her ill father’s inability to work. She is responsible for caring for her two younger siblings while her mother works, and she’s starting fifth grade in a new school near the shelter where her family has just moved. She has a defensive shell built up from poor experiences, including bullying at her previous school, and is surprised to find the students and her new teacher friendly and welcoming. It soon becomes clear that the chasm between her experiences and background knowledge and those of her new classmates is wider than expected. The principal has decided that everyone in school needs to study 9/11, and Deja doesn’t know anything about it. Her sense of alienation and her suspicion that everyone else knows something she doesn’t, is heartbreakingly articulated; she thinks to herself she is “too dumb” to be at the school.
The process by which Deja uncovers the meaning of 9/11 to her personally is compelling. Readers feel along with Deja as she learns the facts, including watching a truly horrifying video at a friend’s house. It turns out her father is ill because he had worked as a security guard in the North Tower, and is experiencing what adult readers will recognize as PTSD, as well as lingering asthma from inhaling ash. In a misguided but well-meaning attempt to protect Deja from the horrors he experienced first-hand, he’s insisted on hiding all information about 9/11 from her. Through his daughter’s growing awareness, and not without realistic anger, he begins to come to terms with his condition and seek healing.
Some story elements do seem a bit facile. For example, Deja makes two new best friends unrealistically quickly, each of whose backgrounds serves to make a point about 9/11. Sabeena, a Muslim girl, recalls discrimination toward her family after the attacks, and Mexican American Ben’s father served in the military. However, the friends’ give-and-take is realistically done, and frankly, Deja’s ease in making friends comes as needed relief against the sadness of her family’s situation and the terrible facts of 9/11, none of which are spared here.
This is a sensitive, credible portrayal of young people coming to terms with a major event in American history that is still affecting society today.
Reviewed by Diane Bailey Foote