Ellen Zschunke, a librarian at Pine Road School in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, considers herself a fan. She says the students at her K-5 school “gobble up” the books and recommend them to each other. “We want to protect them, but they want to learn about this stuff,” she said. As for the quieter, gentler 9/11 books, like Fireboat? “They’re vague. Kids have more questions [after reading them] than when they started.”
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My son eventually brought I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001 home from school. According to some estimates, Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books, has a presence in 90 percent of America’s schools, through book fairs, take-home book order forms, and the sale of materials directly to teachers and librarians. My son has read most of the I Survived series by borrowing books from his classroom and school libraries. The 9/11 edition, like the rest in the series, is intended to hook reluctant readers and thus opens at the moment of greatest suspense before going back in time to explain how the protagonist arrived there and how he—it’s always a he—survived. In this case, the opening pages find 11-year-old Lucas in lower Manhattan as the first jet crashes into the North Tower: “With one last ferocious roar, the jet plunged into the side of one of the towers. There was a thundering explosion. People all around Lucas screamed. And then the bright blue sky filled with black smoke and fire.”
Subsequent chapters, set in the days before September 11, have Lucas, a budding football star growing up in a New York City suburb, being told by his mother and his FDNY father that he must quit the team after suffering a third concussion. Distraught, he skips school that Tuesday and takes a train into Manhattan to seek help from his Uncle Benny, his dad’s best friend, who’s also a firefighter and the person who’d encouraged him to play football to begin with. After the first tower is struck, Lucas goes to the firehouse, where he’s told to stay put as the firefighters rush to the scene. When the second plane hits, however, Lucas sets out alone in search of his father, encountering mangled airplane parts and panicked crowds on the way. He finds his dad near the first responders’ staging area, and the two run for cover together as the first tower falls. By the end of the book, several of the firefighters Lucas knows have perished in the attacks; initially it’s suggested that Uncle Benny died as well, but the final pages reveal that he made it out, injured but alive. An afterword provides a few facts about Osama bin Laden, his death, and the war in Afghanistan without getting into the motives for the attacks.
If Tarshis was terrified writing the book, I confess to being a bit terrified reading it, perhaps because of the vivid depiction of a child close in age to my own experiencing the horror of 9/11 firsthand. Several of the books are similarly upsetting for their portrayals of children essentially fending for themselves during times of grave crisis. Susan Fox, founder of the Park Slope Parents online community, said she “cried [her] eyes out” reading the Japanese tsunami book, a particularly grueling entry in the series that features an 11-year-old Japanese American boy whose father has recently died getting separated from his mother and brother and swept away by the tsunami while visiting Japan. (“Ben and his family thought they could race away from the wave in a car. But the water caught them. And suddenly, Ben was all by himself. The wave grabbed Ben and sucked him under.”) Fox, whose daughter began reading the series in the third grade after encountering the books at school, said, “I still think about the image of the boy seeing an arm sticking out of the mud.”