Ten year old Deja is starting fifth grade at a new school. Things are tough at home: Pop is always sick and sad, Ma is always at work, and Deja is always taking care of her little brother and sister while Pop is asleep. Her family has been homeless for a while now, and living in one room at the rundown Avalon homeless shelter. Her new school is different from anywhere else Deja has been, and the education of recent history that Deja receives will change her life and the lives of her friends and family forever. Towers Falling is a wonderful story that takes place around the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, and is a sensitive yet informative tool for teaching students about the tragic and important time in the history of the United States.
During the summer, Deja’s family moved into Avalon Family Residence, a homeless shelter with a fancy name, but it was anything but fancy. Deja and her family, Ma, Pop, little brother Ray, and little sister Leda share a single room. Pop is always in bed and Ma is always at work, which leaves Deja in charge of her siblings most of the time. When school starts, Deja is once again the new girl, this time at the Brooklyn Collective Elementary School, she doesn’t want to fit in. She doesn’t want to be there. Her teacher, Miss Garcia, seems nervous but friendly, and tells the class that the curriculum will be new and progressive this year, but Deja doesn’t quite understand what that means. All she can think about is how she doesn’t have a lunch, and how she hopes they won’t have to write an essay about summer vacation.
On the first day of school, Deja meets Ben, another new kid with glasses and a short haircut, and Sabeen, a friendly girl who always wears a scarf around her head. They give her some of their lunches and don’t care that she’s homeless; although Deja fought it at first, she comes to realize that the two kids want to be her friend, and she’s okay with that. When the class begins to learn about a historical event that happened 15 years ago on September 11th, Deja has no idea what she is talking about. Towers falling? Terrorists? What is this all about, and how does it impact me, she wonders. She doesn't understand why they had to learn about something so long ago. Miss Garcia works with the class to understand how, even though everyone is different, we are all part of a small social unit that is part of a bigger social unit, and so on. Everyone in the classroom is part of New York, which is part of America, and that is a connection that is shared by all in the classroom.
When Pop learns that the school is teaching about the events that happened on 9/11, he comes to the school to talk to Miss Garcia, and threatens to take Deja out of Brooklyn Collective. Deja is devastated and does not want to leave her friends, her social unit, and Miss Garcia. She wants to learn about September 11th, even if her father doesn’t want her to. When Deja leaves school that day, she realizes that her father changed his mind, but he still refuses to talk about the towers and what happened that day. When she has a moment alone in the room, Deja opens the suitcase that she always sees her father carrying. Inside of it is a set of work clothes, a broken flashlight, a walkie talkie, a picture of her father and two other men, a dusty wallet, and a name tag. When Deja sees the name tag she finally understands: her father worked in one of the towers. He was there that day. He saw everything. Deja put the suitcase away and decided not to mention the towers again, for she didn’t want to further upset her father.
Unable to get the image of the video that Ben had shown her days ago out of her head, Deja decides she simply has to visit the site where the towers once stood. She and Ben skip school and take the subway to the memorial. While there, Deja sees many people grieving, and even hears some of the stories that people have to share. She is drawn to the water. She is drawn to the names. She understands now and she wants to see more. When a police officer asks Deja and Ben if they are with an adult, the two kids run back to the subway and head home.
When she returns home, Pop is waiting for her. He isn’t mad, he is worried. He is ready to tell Deja his story. Deja learns that her father was a security guard in the North Tower when the planes hit, and that the two men in the picture were his friends and coworkers. His friends went up the elevator to try to help people, while Pop took the stairs, a decision that ended up saving his life. Pop told Deja about how he helped an old woman down the stairwell, and that they were at the very bottom when the North Tower collapsed all around them. It was the most horrible thing anyone could ever experience, and he didn’t think Deja was old enough to know the details of that day. In fact, he didn’t think anyone was old enough to know the details, but he knew it had to be shared. Pop’s guilt over not being able to help his friends and the people inside the tower that day had been eating away at him for fifteen years, and now, because of that guilt, he is sick and depressed and unable to care for his own family. Deja sees her father in a new light, and thinks of him as a hero. She tells her father that he will get better, things will get better.
Deja and her family begin to put themselves back together again. They will move into a subsidized apartment, which isn’t great, but certainly a step in the right direction. Deja and her friends are closer than ever, and she feels like she has a true social unit that she can count on. Deja tells her father that she would like to go to the 9/11 Memorial with him someday, and really take the time to see it with him. She knows that someday they will.
September 11th is a very difficult subject to teach children. Like Deja’s father, teachers and parents grapple with the question, at what age is it okay to tell children about what took place on that beautiful, sunny September morning? At what age is it okay to expose them to such a tragedy? The answer is still unclear, but Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Towers Falling is undeniably the perfect resource for any classroom that is taking on this difficult subject. It is a historical fiction novel that brings people together during a time when the goal was to tear them apart.
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