It's so hard to believe twenty years have passed. The primary emotion we associate with 9/11 is grief and anger, but when I decided to write ALL WE HAVE LEFT, I knew I wanted to shine a light on the incredible bravery and strength of the people trapped in the towers, as well as the families dealing with the loss of their loved ones. I thought it was important to remember that on one the darkest days of human history that there were still these bright moments of light, of humanity. I wanted to write a story that showed how important that day was to our country, but also to show the strength of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.
As a family, we've always spent a lot of time on the boat and at the beach, but this summer especially so due to the pandemic. Here are some of my favorite pictures from this summer.
If you’d asked me two months ago if I thought the absolute highlight of my every day would be to step out at dusk and listen to my neighbors howl, I would have laughed in your face.
The size and speed of the changes in the past several months is breathtaking. We’ve learned very quickly that the world can change overnight.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that normally my life is crammed full of activity, every inch of my day filled with projects, phone calls, the inevitable running of a sports mom, and the usual chaos of keeping up with a busy household. When I first faced the prospect of a lockdown, I thought: “Well, this won’t be so bad.” I work from home, I reasoned. This won’t be so different.
Instead, I found myself completely unmoored.
It wasn’t that just that I couldn’t run to the grocery store whenever I wanted—and when I did I went feeling as if I were going into battle—or had to forgo lunch dates, and scheduled medical procedures. It was that every moment of every day was filled with the awful grayness of the unknown. How was I supposed to go about my normal day when people I loved were in danger and the prospect of a worldwide recession, or even a depression, was a very real prospect? People I knew were getting sick; people I knew were losing everything they had worked their whole lives to build. Life as we knew it had changed, practically overnight. I’ve never felt so alone, so un-tethered from other people.
The most ironic thing about this pandemic is that it separates us, just when we need people the most. We’re all scared; we’re all grieving for lost love ones, and lost opportunities. We’re grieving for a defunct future that looks completely different than it did just a few short months ago. We need to be together right now, sharing our strength, and instead we are standing six feet apart.
I’ve come to realize, however, that we are coming together. While I may not have seen my friends and extended family for weeks, I’ve talked to them far more than I did in the past. How are you doing? I’m scared too. We’ll get through this. People are helping out elderly neighbors, bringing them groceries, checking to make sure they are all right. Kids are leaving chalk messages on the sidewalks; people are singing in the streets. In my neighborhood, people step out on the porch every night and howl together against the darkness of the night. Despite a disease that is driving us apart, we are coming together.
I remember the strong sense of community and unity in the aftermath of 9/11. We felt like we were stronger together than apart. It wasn’t me and them in those precious days and weeks, it was we and us.
As this pandemic continues tearing apart the fabric of our lives at dizzying speed, I think we have a choice. We have an opportunity to make something good out of this, to make changes that will last even after the pandemic wears itself out. In a society fraught with division, and a disease intent on clawing these schisms even wider, we can succumb to the siren call of us-against-them, or we can fight to repair what is broke.
A national disaster is wreaking havoc on us as a nation; it is a shared burden, a threat that is bigger than all of us individually, but not bigger than all of us together. We can’t let this rip us apart, just when we need each other the most.
The world will return to normal. On that day, I’m looking to stepping outside at dusk and listening to my neighbors still howling together in unison.
It's hard to believe that eighteen years have passed since that terrible Tuesday morning when planes began flying into buildings, and it felt like the world would never be the same.
Three years after ALL WE HAVE LEFT came out, the question I get the most often is: "Why did you want to write about 9/11?"
I decided to write this book when my oldest son began asking questions about 9/11. He was only eight or nine at the time, and it hit me that he was not even alive in 2001, and that he did not have first-hand knowledge of that awful day. He didn’t experience how it felt like everything changed in 102 tragic minutes, and how we as a country came together, if only for a short time. It seemed important to me to he, and other children like him, should know. I decided to write a story that showed how important that day was to our country, but also to show the strength of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.
I believe fiction is an excellent way to teach history. It focuses on individuals living their best lives in the face of world-changing events. The trick, of course, is to stay true to history while still allowing the reader to experience an event as truthfully as possible. It seems to me that fiction has the ability to slip past the brain and go straight to the heart.
As hard as it is to believe for those of us who remember that day so viscerally, 9/11 has become a historical event, and teaching children our shared history is one of the best gifts we can give them.
In the end, I wanted to write a story about healing and compassion, and respecting people as individuals. I don’t think there is ever a time when we shouldn’t be talking about that.
On this eighteenth anniversary of 9/11, I would like to suggest a few fiction books for our kids to help them understand the importance of that day to our country. There are undoubtedly other great books about the subject, but these I have personally read and can recommend. The beauty of these books are that they look at the subject from many different perspectives, serving to complement one another to give a multi-faceted view of that day.
In no particular order...
(Descriptions are courtesy of Goodreads)
Middle Grade Books
by Nora Raleigh Baskin
From the critically acclaimed author of Anything But Typical comes a touching look at the days leading up to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and how that day impacted the lives of four middle schoolers.
Ask anyone: September 11, 2001, was serene and lovely, a perfect day — until a plane struck the World Trade Center.
But right now it is a few days earlier, and four kFrom the critically acclaimed author of Anything But Typical comes a touching look at the days leading up to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and how that day impacted the lives of four middle schoolers.
Ask anyone: September 11, 2001, was serene and lovely, a perfect day — until a plane struck the World Trade Center.
But right now it is a few days earlier, and four kids in different parts of the country are going about their lives. Sergio, who lives in Brooklyn, is struggling to come to terms with the absentee father he hates and the grandmother he loves. Will’s father is gone, too, killed in a car accident that has left the family reeling. Nadira has never before felt uncomfortable about being Muslim, but at her new school she’s getting funny looks because of the head scarf she wears. Amy is starting a new school in a new city and missing her mom, who has to fly to New York on business.
These four don’t know one another, but their lives are about to intersect in ways they never could have imagined. Award-winning author Nora Raleigh Baskin weaves together their stories into an unforgettable novel about that seemingly perfect September day — the day our world changed forever.
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
From award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes, a powerful novel set fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks.
When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can't help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?
Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes tells a powerful story about young people who weren't alive to witness this defining moment in history, but begin to realize how much it colors their every day.
by Tom Rogers
Alex Douglas always wanted to be a hero. But nothing heroic ever happened to Alex. Nothing, that is, until his eleventh birthday. When Alex rescues a stray dog as a birthday gift to himself, he doesn't think his life can get much better. Radar, his new dog, pretty much feels the same way. But this day has bigger things in store for both of them. This is a story about bullies and heroes. About tragedy and hope. About enemies with two legs and friends with four, and pesky little sisters and cranky old men, and an unexpected lesson in kindness delivered with a slice of pizza. This is "Eleven": the journey of a boy turning eleven on 9/11.
Just a Drop of Water
by Kerry O'Malley Cerra
Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart—and outrun—the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.
According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. But the final blow comes when his grandpa’s real past is revealed to Jake. Suddenly, everything he ever knew to be true feels like one big lie. In the end, he must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.
A gripping and intensely touching debut middle grade novel by Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Just a Drop of Water brings the events of September 11, which shook the world, into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event.
Winner of a Florida Book Award, the Crystal Kite Award, and named to VOYAs Top Shelf Fiction for Middle Readers' 2014 list, Just a Drop of Water is a read for all age levels.
Love Is the Higher Law
by David Levithan
First there is a Before, and then there is an After. . . .
The lives of three teens—Claire, Jasper, and Peter—are altered forever on September 11, 2001. Claire, a high school junior, has to get to her younger brother in his classroom. Jasper, a college sophomore from Brooklyn, wakes to his parents’ frantic calls from Korea, wondering if he’s okay. Peter, a classmate of Claire’s, has to make his way back to school as everything happens around him.
Here are three teens whose intertwining lives are reshaped by this catastrophic event. As each gets to know the other, their moments become wound around each other’s in a way that leads to new understandings, new friendships, and new levels of awareness for the world around them and the people close by.
David Levithan has written a novel of loss and grief, but also one of hope and redemption as his characters slowly learn to move forward in their lives, despite being changed forever.
The Memory of Things
by Gae Polisner
On the morning of September 11, 2001, sixteen-year-old Kyle Donohue watches the first Twin Tower come down from the window of Stuyvesant High School. Moments later, terrified and fleeing home to safety across the Brooklyn Bridge, he stumbles across a girl perched in the shadows, covered in ash, and wearing a pair of costume wings. With his mother and sister in California, and unable to reach his father, a New York City detective likely on his way to the disaster, Kyle makes the split-second decision to bring the girl home.
What follows is their story, told in alternating points of view, as Kyle tries to unravel the mystery of the girl so he can return her to her family. But what if the girl has forgotten everything, even her own name? And what if the more Kyle gets to know her, the less he wants her to go home?
All We Have Left
by Wendy Mills
A haunting and heart-wrenching story of two girls, two time periods, and the one event that changed their lives—and the world—forever.
Sixteen-year-old Jesse is used to living with the echoes of the past. Her older brother died in the September 11th attacks, and her dad has filled their home with anger and grief. When Jesse gets caught up with the wrong crowd, one momentary hate-fueled decision turns her life upside down. The only way to make amends is to face the past, starting Jesse on a journey that will reveal the truth about how her brother died.
In 2001, sixteen-year-old Alia is proud to be Muslim... it's being a teenager that she finds difficult. After being grounded for a stupid mistake, Alia is determined to show her parents that that they must respect her choices. She'll start by confronting her father at his office in downtown Manhattan, putting Alia in danger she never could have imagined. When the planes collide into the Twin Towers Alia is trapped inside one of the buildings. In the final hours she meets a boy who will change everything for her as the flames rage around them...
Interweaving stories past and present, full of heartbreak and hope, two girls come of age in an instant, learning that both hate and love have the power to reverberate into the future and beyond.
I also wanted to mention TALKING TEXTS, because it's a great resource for educators who want to use a book club to explore the themes of hope and resilience expressed in these books. Chapter Ten utilizes many of the books I've mentioned to set up a sample book club for those interested in learning more about 9/11.
by Lesley Roessing
Talking Texts is a guide for teachers to the steps and strategies of implementing text clubs in many forms-- fiction and nonfiction book clubs, textbook clubs, article clubs, and even poetry clubs--in the classroom. All strategies presented are applicable to any discipline so that text clubs can be employed across the curriculum in any grade level.
On this solemn occasion, I hope that we all remember the way we felt that day. I want us to remember the tragedy in the hopes that it will never happen again, but more, I want us to remember the unity that brought us together to heal.
I've been meaning to post these pictures for a while, but somehow time got away from me. In March, I went to lovely Indianapolis for Rosie Con, which was the first time I had been to Indianapolis since I was a child. I was invited because ALL WE HAVE LEFT was nominated for the Eliot Rosewater Award, chosen by Indiana High School students. It was a lovely trip, and I met so many great people!
On Friday, I went to Chapel Hill Middle School and gave several presentations, as well as eating lunch with the book club. Brenda Krebs, the media specialist, was so welcoming and thorough in her preparations. Everything went off without a hitch!
My mom, who came with me from Florida to keep me company, really hit it off with Sheri, the principal of Chapel Hill.
So, if you're in Indianapolis, what better thing to do after an author dinner but to go racing? What a blast. These babies weren't your run-of-the-mill go-carts. They were fast!
Do I look cold? That's because it was 87 degrees when I left Florida and in Indianapolis it was...not.
I really had an amazing time, and am so thankful for the Rosie Con Committee for inviting me!
But this is the easy answer, because it often feels as if writing for me is like breathing. It’s something I feel compelled to do, something as important to me as oxygen.
The fact is that the answer is not so neat. Yes, I love to write, but what compels me to tell the stories I tell? Why do I spend years of my life entwined in the lives of these characters, their heartbreak and their laughter, their struggles and their triumphs?
Every story I have published, I have been asked: why did you write this story?
But never have I been asked: How do you choose into which story to pour your heart?
Oftentimes there seems to be so many potential stories in my head that I could sift them like shimmering diamonds through my fingers. But somewhere in there is a story that gleams the brightest, a story that I feel that I have to tell, no matter what.
Writing a book is not easy undertaking. Maybe it would be easier if I were a poet or a songwriter. This isn’t to say that these undertakings are easy: in fact I have found myself sadly lacking at a talent to do either. It seems appealing, though, to choose a subject, lovingly fashion the words together in a heartbeat of emotion, and then move on to the next one. It would not be easy, but the time commitment—of both time, and of soul—would be less cumbersome.
And yet I write books.
I’ve begun to see that I do not choose the story; the story chooses me. I wake up some mornings with words I want to say, sometimes so loud in my head that I feel like they are shouting. It makes me feel like I need to shout them. And that’s what gets me out of bed and onto my computer. I’m driven by the same primal urge that drove cavemen to paint on walls, a need to communicate something that seems so important to me that I am willing to spend years of my life to say them. I don’t have answers, I have questions, questions that I want to explore.
In a sense, my writing is therapy. Not so much that I’m working things out in my own past, but in that I am trying to understand the world around me. Because sometimes it makes no damn sense, but I have to believe that there is a reason in there somewhere, that other people have the same questions I do, and somehow together we can work it out. I don’t feel that I have some great wisdom to impart; my writing is more of a collaborative effort between me and the reader, us holding hands and leaping into places that, alone, we would be afraid to go.
The stories I tell are not just oxygen to me, but the beating of my heart. My writing is a joyful, sometimes anguished, shout at the world.
I write because I have something to say.
I recently spent the day at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, and had the opportunity to talk to both the middle school and upper school about 9/11, as well as eat lunch with the book club. I was impressed by every single student I encountered at SSES, and feel honored to have been invited. (Thank you, Ms. Pommer!) It was a thought-provoking day, and I couldn’t have asked for a better audience.
I also had the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Hoonhout’s creative writing class about the importance of voice in our writing, and wanted to talk about some of the things I have been thinking about.
To an author a voice means a lot of things, but mainly it is what you hear when an editor or reader likes your work (What an unusual, fresh voice!”) or doesn’t (“The voice just didn’t resonate with me.”). Every published author has heard some variation of this over the years, hopefully the former, because that’s what gets you published. :)
The question is, what is voice?
The first thing we need to do is separate author voice from character voice.
Character voice is how your character sounds, which is imbued from their history, their experiences– who they are. In any given story, you as an author are going to be asked to show many different character voices, and you must know the character to do this: their goals, their heartbreaks, their fateful decisions. Every single sentence should show your reader who that person is.
You can tell a LOT about a character in just one sentence. For example, your character comes up to their locker and there is someone standing in front of it:
A mean person might shoulder the other person out of the way and say, “Hey, loser get out of my way.”
A shy person might say nothing and wait for the other person to leave.
An outgoing person might say, “Since you’re standing there, hold my backpack, will you? Aren’t you in my biology class?”
How your characters react is telling. Who they are shines through in even this simple interaction.
You need to know who your character is inside and out to be able to do this successfully. When I wrote All We Have Left, I switched between two girls point of view, and it was a challenge to understand who these girls were, and how they were different, as well as how they were the same. Jesse was dark and sarcastic and sometimes shy; Alia was optimistic, breezy and feisty. How they approached the world was completely different, colored by their experiences. Every sentence that came out of their mouths, every scene they narrated, had to reflect the person they were. What’s more, I had to know why they were like that: their life experiences, their hopes, their dreams, their crushing failures. As a writer, we always know way more about our characters than what makes it onto paper. The reader is only seeing the shining, jagged iceberg, with just hints of what lies below the surface.
Now that we understand a little better what character voice is, we need to look at author voice.
Author voice is much more difficult to define. In some ways, it’s like telling a blind person what the sky looks like. Every one of us would approach this in a different way, because we all have our own unique way of looking at the world.
Your voice isn’t one in a million, it’s one in a billion. It’s who you are when you’re talking to your best friend, it’s the realness of writing a letter to your future self, it’s the stuff that you think but never actually say. It’s your utterly unique way of looking at the world, and no one else can look at it quite the same way because no one else has had the life story that you have.
To write in your own voice you have to be brave. You have to care deeply about what you’re writing. You have to be you.
If all this sounds like you have to know yourself pretty well before you find your voice, then I have done my job. Because your author voice is exactly, solely you, and you have to dig for it. You have to unearth it, polish it up, and watch how it sparkles. It’s not easy, and it’s not for the faint-hearted, but when you find it… ah.
Finding your own voice isn’t something you learn. It’s not something you search for in a thousand books. It’s the moment you realize that as well as an author said something, it’s not the way you would have said it.
Do you have any examples of how voice places a role in your own work?
I have asked Mr. Hoonhout’s class to chime in on this, and I look forward to seeing some of the example of the exercises they have been working on.
January was quiet month for me, spent mostly with family and on vacation. This has given me a lot of time to reflect on the past year and the upcoming one. Another resolution: to not let a groove turn into a rut! I'm not entirely sure how to tell the difference, but I am resolving to examine my life more closely. Sometimes we continue to do things because they are easy, and not because they add value and meaning to our lives.
Speaking of vacation, every January we take off to the mountains of West Virginia to go skiing. It's a tradition my husband and I started in college, and over the years it has evolved from a college friends free-for-all, to a family and friends event that I cherish. My two boys now ski better and faster than I do. Not bad for a pair of Florida crackers!
On another note, these two women have read everything that I have written before it was published. They are my first readers, and my brainstorming partners, patiently listening while I discuss story and plot lines for hours on end. I honestly don't know how I could do it without you, Mom and Aunt Joyce. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
A bit of book news to share. ALL WE HAVE LEFT was nominated for a Teen Choice Book Award, and was named as a Notable Social Studies Book by the Children's Book Council. As I dive into my next book, it's incredibly nice to hear that ALL WE HAVE LEFT has been so warmly received. Is there a little bit of pressure to turn out a new book as good-- or even better? Yes. Yes, there is. :)
As 2016 disappears in the rearview mirror, and 2017 rolls into view, I've been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings. As a writer, I masterfully steer (read: “sweatily manhandle”) my stories through a definite beginning, middle, and end, but it struck me the other day that we never know quite where we are in our own personal narrative. We could be living our last chapter at this very moment--or we could be beginning a new chapter leading us to crazy-cool places.
As you get older, it's easy to focus on the endings, rather than the beginnings. But how many new experiences and adventures are we missing out on because it seems we're too old to start something new? I believe there are still new beginnings for me, and I'm resolving in 2017 to find them, lasso them, and make them my own.
Speaking of endings, Richard Adams died a week ago. He was 96, and he lived a long and productive life, but I still couldn’t help but feel his death particularly hard. His book, Watership Down, prompted me to begin writing a long, long time ago. I don't know why this particular book inspired me to write my first plagiaristic story at the age of twelve (he had rabbits; I had cats), but something in it spoke to me. I've been thinking about twelve-year-old Wendy writing that first sentence; I didn’t know then that I was embarking on a thirty-year journey that would change my life. I didn’t know that I was starting what would become a passion that I'm sure will carry me through to the end.
Who knows where new beginnings will take us?
The end of 2016 was full of family and celebration, but my favorite part, as usual, is the time I spent with my family out on the water. I look at my children and wonder where their passions will lead them. After all, I began writing when I was younger than my oldest son. Are my sons even now beginning their own journeys that will carry them into their bright futures?
I haven’t posted anything about Murdock in a while. He is nine months old, and has turned into a sweet, intelligent dog who can open doors and jump onto the top bunk of my son's bed. I am focusing on the good in 2016, and he is one of them.
Another thing I am grateful for is ALL WE HAVE LEFT. I had no idea where this book would lead me when I started it four years ago. It was the hardest book I ever wrote, and I suppose it's only fair that it is the book for which I have won the most recognition. The newest accolade, of which I am particularly proud, was from the Nerdy Book Club. ALL WE HAVE LEFT was named one of their picks for best teen books of 2016.
This makes me smile.
I wish I could show a video of what happened a few days ago. A dolphin came to the side of our boat and poked his head out of the water to look at us, no doubt wanting some food. We did not oblige, but he hung around for about five minutes right at the edge of the boat. I THOUGHT I was taking a video the whole time, but when I looked down at the screen, I realized that I never hit record. Very much a blond moment!
Anyway, this is a sunset shot from where we saw the dolphin.
Here's to new beginnings and leaving regrets behind in the old year.
November is a beautiful month in SW Florida. While everyone else is hunkering down next to crackling fires and watching leaves fall in glorious drifts of colors, down here we are turning off the air conditioner, opening the windows, and beginning to prepare for a glorious winter of sunshine and flowers.
For example, this was my view at a recent signing on my island. It was an absolutely gorgeous night, and as the sun began to fall, sirens began to blare over the water.
Hey, look! Is that Santa Clause on that boat?
Why yes. Yes, it is.
If you look real close, you'll see he's wearing white boots. I've heard these called several different things depending on where I've lived (Mullet Boots, Matlacha Slippers, Seaford Reeboks, Wanchese Bedroom Slippers) but they always mean I'm living in a community next to the water.
Which brings me to another past time well known on the islands of SW Florida. Cast netting. And yes, there is actually a thing called a "Cast Net Rodeo." The kids dress up in cowboy hats and throw nets at both moving and stationary targets.
This guy was cute.
This guy was not.
I have some book news as well. ALL WE HAVE LEFT was nominated for the Young Adult Library Services Association best young adult fiction list.
It's also an Amazon and a Kirkus Reviews best book for 2016.
It was listed among the ALA's top 10 religion and spiritualty books for youth for 2016.
Finally, I just found out today that ALL WE HAVE LEFT is the winner of the Bookbrowse Award for best young adult book of 2016.
You know how much I love my sunsets... I will leave you with this one.