When The Unthinkable Happens

unthinkablehWhat happened on September 11, 2001, was unthinkable, the terrorist attacks of that day so unimaginably monstrous they boggled the mind and still threaten to defy comprehension. And no wonder, for how do you think about the unthinkable? How do you imagine the unimaginable?

Well, if you’re like me, you start with reading. For you believe that books–by offering information, ideas, and, in the case of fiction, opportunities for empathy–can stimulate thought, provoke discussion, and, ultimately, provide understanding, reassurance, and even comfort.

It was this belief that prompted the creation of 911: The Book of Help, which I had the privilege of coediting with Marc Aronson and Marianna Carus. This anthology contains stories, essays, and poems by 25 prominent writers for young readers who share their highly individual, deeply personal, and sometimes emotion-charged reactions to the tragedy.

As the submissions began to arrive, they seemed to fall naturally into four thematic sections, which I titled “Healing,” “Searching for History,” “Asking Why? Why? Why?” and “Reacting and Recovering.”

These categories seem to address the 9/11-related issues of most compelling interest to young readers, and they have been the focus, not just of the book I helped compile, but of numerous other titles. Since September 11, there have been more than 100 books published for children and adults on 9/11 topics, and it is estimated that 50 to 60 more will appear this fall. Elsewhere in this issue, Stephanie Zvirin and Beth Leistensnider have compiled a list of some of the best youth titles published to date (see p. 115), and Brad Hooper has done the same for the adult titles (see p.28).

Here are a few other titles that I think are particularly noteworthy, starting with DC Comics two-volume collection titled 9-11: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember. These short graphic works will be of particular interest to comic-loving teens.

The voices of the young adults themselves will be featured in With Their Eyes (HarperCollins). Compiled by Annie Thoms, this collection of eyewitness accounts from students at New York’s Stuyvesant High, which is located at Ground Zero, could be very special.

The events of September 11 made national heroes of firefighters and police, who are, accordingly, the subjects of a number of new books. A few of these are Cop on the Beat, a photo-essay for teens by Arlene Schulman (Dutton), and, for younger kids, Christine Kole MacLean’s Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms (Dutton) and Maira Kalman’s Fireboat (Viking), which is the subject of a starred review by GraceAnne A. DeCandido on p. 113. Though not directly related to 9-11, Mary Pope Osborne’s New York’s Bravest, is my favorite of the lot. This spirited tall tale recounts the exploits of a legendary New York firefighter of the 1840s named Mose Humphreys and beautifully captures the same spirit of selfless courage that public safety personnel would display 160 years later and that may well make them the legendary folk heroes of tomorrow.

Another burgeoning category of books that also do not deal directly with 9/11 but are inspired by the national temper that resulted from it is typified by Lynne Cheney’s America: A Patriotic Primer (Simon & Schuster) and HarperCollins’ God Bless America. Happily, the earnestness of these flag-waving efforts is lightened by the good-humored illustrations of Robin Preiss Glasser and Lynn Munsinger, respectively. Even better, though, is We the Kids (Dial), the text of which is the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Gifted illustrator David Catrow offers both a cheerful introduction and a wonderfully funny story in the pictures he has created to accompany the timeless words of the Founding Fathers.

And lastly, the large-hearted good humor that enriches all of Joan Bauer’s fiction is a highlight of her newest novel Stand Tall (Putnam), a story that has nothing and everything to do with September 11. Though it never mentions that day’s cataclysmic events, its depiction of a 12-year-old boy’s struggle to Cope with his parents’ divorce while helping his Vietnam veteran grandfather learn to walk again perfectly captures the courage and spirit that, a year ago, transformed so many ordinary citizens into heroes. And in its multigenerational appeal, it offers the perfect opportunity we need for entire families to think together about the unthinkable and to speak together about the unspeakable.

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