The sky was robin’s-egg blue. There were one or two fluffy, almost decorative clouds. It was late-summer warm, so the air was still and clear, not the least bit humid. Warm the exact way you would set the temperature of the earth, if you could. Clear, with just enough breeze so you knew you were outside, breathing fresh air. People would remember that day with all sorts of adjectives: serene, lovely, cheerful, invigorating, peaceful, quiet, astounding, crystalline, blue.
Until 8:46 a.m.”
What did that sky look like? Like the Memorial Wall at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. We went to the museum in 2017, and I was struck with how it was designed, beginning with this bright open space and then moving into a smaller space that was cramped and chaotic.
A similar movement happens in this story. It begins on 9/9, at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, where we are introduced to four middle-school students: Aimee, Sergio, Naheed, and Will. None of them know each other. On 9/10, we see each of them in their homes, in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Columbus, and Shanksville. On 9/11, the perfect day turns terrible. And in the epilogue, “One Year Later,” they all gather at the World Trade Center site to mark the one-year anniversary. They see each other and interact as parts of the crowd, but each is living out their unique story, individual and collective, side by side.
Sometimes we tell Before and After stories as if Before was as perfect as a September sky and After was apocalypse. The truth is more cloudy. Most of us that Tuesday morning were already dealing with something. That’s how we meet these four students — grappling with a move across the country, poverty, insecurity regarding a hijab, and grief over a father’s death. When the storm comes, it hits them where they are, already trying to navigate choppy weather patterns.
I’m going to give a spoiler that is crucial for why this book works well for middle-grade readers: none of the young protagonists loses someone they love in the attacks. Every one of them could have, and a lot of the novel’s suspense is wondering, Oh no — is she about to go into that building? Are they about to get on that flight? The choice to not focus 9/11 stories around personal experiences of death is wise. The terrorist attacks changed life for all of us. We’re reminded of that every time we get on a plane.
For these four students, some of the change that comes in the wake of the terrorist attack is not a bad thing; their After contains some good. There’s nothing like a tragedy to make you seize the moment.
That aspect of the story made me think of the musical, Come From Away, about what happened when 38 planes were diverted to Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, on 9/11. It’s a story of kindness, and about how life changes in unexpected ways. Maybe you find true love. Maybe you break up. Maybe you finally tell your story because you realize that when those planes were crashed, “All those stories … gone.” Suddenly, like those 7,000 passengers and these four kids, you find yourself.
Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere,
in the middle of who knows where,
there you’ll find
Something in the middle of nowhere,
in the middle of clear blue air,
you found your heart, but left a part of you behind
from 38 Planes: Reprise
For Generation Z and those unnamed, upcoming young people, 9/11 is a constant. It either happened before they were born or when they were so young that they’ve never known a different world. They will face other Afters that interrupt their clear blue mornings. This book is for them.
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, October 9. We’ll read a spooky book — Just Beyond: The Scare School by R.L. Stine, his first graphic novel.
Browse more Children’s Book Clubs
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro