"Once There Were Two Towers": Describing Tragedy to Children after 9/11

By Joshua C. Feblowitz
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

The attacks of September 11th have frequently been characterized as unimaginable, capable of inflicting confusion and emotional trauma beyond the scope of other historical events. On September 12th, 2001, N.R. Kleinfeld of the New York Times asserted plainly that the people of New York had “witnessed the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the unthinkable.”1 Moreover, 9/11 has frequently been represented as a point of historical rupture, an event of extraordinary singularity. If society as a whole found the attacks traumatizing and unparalleled, then it follows that children would have had an especially hard time assimilating these events. In the aftermath of the attacks, how did we explain 9/11 to young children? Did we alter, sanitize or otherwise fabricate aspects of the story? Did the picture books that were published attempt to memorialize, instruct, or do something entirely different? Finally, what do these depictions of 9/11 reveal about American society, its cultural values, and its latent attitudes towards children?

As author Ester Meynell once said, “Books, to the reading child, are so much more than books – they are dreams and knowledge, they are a future and a past.” In the lives of many children, books serve as both a palliative and instructive influence. Bibiotherapy, the therapeutic use of books and poetry, is recognized by psychologists as an effective method for helping children overcome trauma.2

Yet when historical trauma and literary representation meet, children’s literature is forced to overcome a number of unique challenges. Oftentimes, children’s books simplify or revise factual events with the goal of presenting an uncomplicated, agreeable, or morally instructive version of history to impressionable children. Picture books about 9/11 face a fundamental problem of representation, whether to teach history or provide comfort. The picture books that have been published represent the product of negotiating this complex literary and historical terrain. Ultimately, children’s literature has taken an important role in mitigating, explaining and redefining the trauma of 9/11.

Mordicai Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Maira Kalman’s Fireboat are two popular picture books that attempt to represent 9/11 for an audience of children. In 2004, Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers was awarded the Caldecott Medal. The American Library Association gives this award each year to the “most distinguished American Picture Book for Children.”3 Likewise, Kalman’s Fireboat was awarded the Boston Globe Horn Book Award and was singled out in Publishers Weekly by a number of booksellers as a powerful and valuable piece of children’s literature. Both offer diverting narratives that hide many of the more complex or traumatic aspects of the terrorist attacks. Gerstein and Kalman place the events of September 11th in a larger historical context and include minimal discussion of the actual attacks themselves. Both Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Kalman’s Fireboat combat a sense of historical rupture by deliberately generating a comforting and non-didactic narrative of continuity. By employing techniques such as narrative bookending and historical contextualization and avoiding most explicit commentary and direct representation, Gerstein and Kalman mitigate the trauma of the attacks, present a hopeful and positive outlook to their audience and recognize the role of parents and teachers in conveying the story of 9/11 and facilitating discussion.

Both The Man and Fireboat are specifically crafted to negotiate the numerous challenges of describing 9/11 in children’s literature. In an article entitled “Retelling 9/11: How Picture Books Re-Envision National Crises,” Professor Paula T. Connelly outlines the unique problems associated with writing a picture book about the attacks:

In revisioning visual images of 9/11 one risks opposing charges of inauthenticity (if the images vary from what many saw, either firsthand or through televised reports) or of frightening children (if the images are too realistic). The scale of destruction and loss of life make the event a difficult one to encapsulate in a picture book. Moreover, fully explicating the event becomes nearly impossible: the motivation for the attacks was politically complex and the event lacks closure that could neatly fit into a narrative structure for young children.4

According to Connelly, the problem of writing children’s literature about 9/11 is three-fold; the scale of the event is too large, the reasons behind them are too complex and the narratives that can be told are restricted by the tension between providing authenticity and comfort. The complex moral and factual terrain that these narratives must navigate may explain why there have a very limited number of picture books on 9/11 and why many of these books have been met with a substantial amount of apprehension. “It gives me an odd feeling in the bottom of my stomach,” one bookseller wrote, “the idea of equating [September 11th] with retail.”5 The creation of picture books that address the attacks of September 11th, 2001 is a process fraught with historical and literary tension and these numerous problems are reflected in the works of Gerstein and Kalman.

The clash between alleviating trauma and explicating historical events is especially apparent in books written for the purpose of bibliotherapy.6 Some children’s authors chose to exclude 9/11 almost entirely from their narratives and focused only on offering sympathy and emotional support. For example, Bernard Waber’s Courage is specifically designed to help children deal with the trauma of 9/11 but only briefly and indirectly references the event. Courage offers reassurance and encouragement in the form of specific examples of courage, ones that a child can relate to such as riding a bike for the first time or jumping off the high dive. The second to last illustration depicts firefighters and police officers and reads simply “Courage is being a firefighter or a police officer.” The final panel represents the most direct reference to 9/11 in the entire book; the illustration shows children waving to a plane as it takes off and the caption reads “Courage is sometimes having to say goodbye.”7 Some might not even consider the book to be related to 9/11 but a note on the publisher’s website reveals its purpose:

Since 9/11, most children (and adults, as well) associate courage with the awesome dedication of emergency workers, but Waber hails everyday courage, the kind that every child is capable of exhibiting… Deceptively eloquent in its simplicity, [the book] teach[s] kids to value their own accomplishments — an effective strategy in dealing with the feelings of helplessness that often follow trauma.8

Waber’s Courage serves as an example of how discussion of specific events is subordinated when the goal is to present a narrative of comfort. In its nearly absent representation of 9/11, Courage can serve as a basic of comparison against which to analyze Gerstein and Kalman’s more explicit representations of 9/11. The diverting narrative presented in Courage reveals the top priority of these children’s 9/11 books: to offer comfort and encouragement in a time of trauma.

Though The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Fireboat directly confront 9/11, they still do so in a way that minimalizes the event and removes it from the center of each narrative. Gerstein selects Phillipe Petit’s famous tightrope walk as the nucleus of his story, effectively de-emphasizing the events of 9/11 in the narrative of the Twin Towers. On the morning of August 7, 1974, Petit, a French street performer, spent nearly an hour delicately walking between the nearly-finished towers on a steel cable. The book itself, though not explicitly about 9/11, offers a certain sense of both historical context and memorialization by focusing on the story of Petit. Only in the final pages does Gerstein indirectly reference the attacks. "Now the towers are gone,” reads the final page, “But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there.”9 Gerstein offers no description of what happened to the towers, why they are “gone.” Instead, he leaves this up to the adult reader to explain to the child if they chose to do so. It is a deliberately incomplete explanation that is meant to facilitate discussion between the reader and the audience.10 Gerstein’s refusal to provide commentary on September 11th brings the narrative of Petit to the forefront and allows the Twin Towers to become associated with the joyful memory of his tight-rope walk.

Though Kalman goes much further in her depiction of 9/11 in Fireboat, the terrorist attacks are still subordinated to a larger narrative. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey is the story of a New York fireboat, built in 1931, that was restored and reequipped just in time to help put out fires around Ground Zero. Although the narrative of Fireboat is more directly focused on the events of 9/11, Kalman nevertheless places emphasizes outside the central 9/11 narrative, celebrating the actions of the heroic “Harvey.” The first mention of 9/11 occurs about two-thirds of the way through the story; Kalman devotes most of the book to discussing the rich history of New York City, including the Empire State Building, the New York Yankees and the launching of the John J. Harvey fireboat. By focusing the story on the fireboat, Kalman engages the narrative of 9/11 but excludes any sense of danger. The Harvey is never in any peril and is removed from the dispiriting Ground Zero rescue efforts. In “Retelling 9/11,” Connelly discusses the effects of this distance between the narrative of Fireboat and the events of 9/11:

That their main characters are not directly injured by the attacks allows child readers a measure of separation from the depicted violence and since the stories are ultimately about the possibilities of positive input and restoration, the authors are able to balance that optimistic ending with direct visual and verbal descriptions of the attacks.11 

Here Connelly argues that Kalman’s choice of subject allows for the direct depiction of the attacks. By decentralizing the attacks in a larger narrative, Kalman makes them seem far less jarring; Harvey’s enduring presence and heroic action counterbalance the images of the attacks and act to impose continuity over the rupture that the attacks represent.

In addition, Gerstein and Kalman place the attacks within a broad historical context in order to bolster this impression of narrative continuity. Both stories begin well before 9/11: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers takes place in 1974 and Fireboat starts in 1931. This narrative choice effectively relocates the starting point of the 9/11 narrative. Gerstein’s story begins with the birth of the Twin Towers and Kalman pushes the narrative even further back by starting with the completion of the Empire State Building. “Such stories can shift attention away from the more-present crisis,” Connelly argues,” by placing it within a longer chronological context, lessening the sense of present-day catastrophe for the reader, and developing a sense of nostalgia or even contrasting lightheartedness.”12 Both stories situate the events of September 11th as part of a large, continuous narrative not only by placing narrative emphasis outside the terrorist attacks but also by drastically expanding the time scale of each narrative, framing it within a “longer chronological context.” As Rycik argues, this technique “puts the events into historical perspective, which is important – life went on before and will go on afterwards.”13 Kalman expresses a similar desire for historical continuity in her Horn Award acceptance speech. “It was important… just to tell the story,” she said, “to show that of course terrible things will happen in this world. Then you go on. I don’t know how you go on even why you do. But you do.”14 Through their choice of subjects and use of historical context, Kalman and Gerstein recenter the story 9/11 and reinforce a sense of historical continuity.

Gerstein and Kalman also frame their narratives using highly positive or mitigated language in an attempt to offer comfort to their audience. Both The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Fireboat employ a technique known as “narrative bookending” in order to mitigate the trauma of 9/11 and combat this trauma by eliciting positive emotions. Narrative bookending is the placement of a “positive description immediately following or on either side of a negative one” that allows the reader’s anxiety to be “both engaged and contained.”15 In order words, the technique of narrative bookending allows for the discussion of potentially upsetting events but circumscribes them in a comforting way. As one bookseller notes, “As adults, our tendency is to try to be positive with children, and anything that emphasizes a positive aspect, such as heroes, is a way in to talking about the subject.”16 Both authors employ this strategy when discussing 9/11. Kalman follows her depiction of the World Trade Center immediately with a list of heroic individuals. “Everyone was terrified,” she writes, “But people were very brave. The entire city sprang into action. Firefighters and police officers and doctors and construction workers and teachers and children and cooks and parents.”17 Not only are these people described as heroes, they are highly recognizable role models and authority figures and their inclusion is designed to comfort the book’s audience. Kalman even references the heroic actions of children, offering her audience the opportunity to identify with the narrative and believe in their own ability to behave heroically.

Gerstein employs narrative bookending in a slightly different fashion, offering up the memory of Petit’s tightrope walk as memorial for the towers. The final panel of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers depicts semi-transparent towers against a cloudy blue sky in a way that is reminiscent of the “Tribute in Light” memorial. “But in memory,” the caption reads, “as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there.”18 This hopeful ending imposes continuity where there would otherwise be none; Gerstein asserts that through positive memories such as Petit’s walk, the towers can continue to exist even if only in the audience’s minds. “The joyful morning, August 7th, 1974” when Petit walked between the towers becomes a way to access the memory of the majestic size and height of the Twin Towers. The use of the date in this specific form is no accident either; it is meant as a reference to the oft-repeated phrase “September 11th, 2001,” and represents an attempt to displace the traumatic memory and exchange it for a joyful and light-hearted one.

Finally, both authors conclude in a very similar fashion, describing the absence of the towers in almost the exact same way. In the final pages of both books appears the statement “Now the [Twin] Towers are gone.”19 This simple declarative avoids the moral and narrative complexities of engaging the cause of the attacks. There is no mention of a separate actor, no attempt to address the actions of the terrorists or their motivations. It is left at the discretion of the reader to discuss these issues as they see fit. In addition, both of these statements are followed by immediate reversals in tone. “But in memory…” Gerstein writes, “the towers are still there.” “Something new will be built,” Kalman continues. The use of such mitigated statements is apparent throughout the texts. “Many lives were lost,” Kalman writes in her description of the attacks.20 Here the avoidance of active language has the effect of softening this upsetting statement. Kalman never uses active words like “killed” or “murdered,” ones that might imply the involvement of a separate actor (the terrorist). Gerstein never even mentions the victims at all, discussing only the absence of the towers. Similarly, Kalman states that “Two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.” Here, Kalman once again omits any mention of volition (she doesn’t say that “Two airplanes were crashed into the Twin Towers”). Such careful word choice throughout these narratives represents a highly specific attempt to mitigate the effects of the tragedy and allow room for the interpretation of the adult reader.

In the analysis of children’s literature, it is vitally important to remember the unique relationship between author and audience. Though picture books are created specifically for young children, they are authored by adults and purchased and read aloud by parents and teachers. Booksellers around the United States recognize that teachers and parents are the primary catalysts for the sales of children’s picture books. As one bookseller notes, “Kids aren’t going to pick them up; it’s adults who will buy them.”21 In “Young Children, National Tragedy and Picture Books,” J.S. McMath argues the importance of the parent-reader as a part of bibliotherapy. "Reading aloud to children provides an essential ingredient that television may lack: the presence and warmth of a caring adult."22 Because of this, it is important to consider how parents and teachers act as intermediaries in the reading and interpretation of picture books.

Both Gerstein and Kalman recognize the profound role that parents and teachers play in helping children understand September 11th. As Connelly writes,

Picture books that only obliquely refer to the attacks that nonetheless frame or underpin their story may have functioned as a palliative for cultural shock, but may require an adult reader/interpreter to complete their intratextually undefined interpolations.23

Gerstein’s fairy tale-like opening (“once there were two towers”) reveals an understanding of the book’s audience. Gerstein knows that the many of the children reading the book will not have any significant memory of the events and may not even know that the towers ever existed. Similarly, Kalman’s personification of the Harvey allows the audience to identify with her central narrative; she describes the Harvey as a “very happy boat” and a “proud and plucky friend.”24 Using such familiar literary devices, Kalman and Gerstein draw their audience into the narrative while still allowing the reader to facilitate discussion of the event by leaving out detailed descriptions of the terrorist attacks.

Despite the numerous parallels between Gerstein and Kalman’s styles of presentation, their works do differ substantially in the degree to which they engage the events of September 11th. Gerstein effectively intercedes on behalf of his audience, reorienting the narrative of the Twin Towers towards a positive and light-hearted memory. His account of Petit’s death-defying feat lends a joyful tone to the creation of the Twin Towers. In 1974, when Petit completed his walk, the Twin Towers were nearly finished and thus, Gerstein’s story can be considered to be a narrative of birth, a celebration of the new towers. The book begins simply with the phrase “Once there were two towers side by side” and an illustration of the twin towers rising up above the New York skyline.25 As Publishers Weekly notes, this line lends a fairytale-like quality to the opening of the narrative.26 In doing so, Gerstein immediately provides his audience with the reassuring effects of familiarity. The use of this highly recognizable opening reinforces the narrative of continuity, signaling to the reader that this story will conform to their narrative expectations for a happy ending. As a whole, Mordecai Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers attempts to combat 9/11 as the dominant memory of the Twin Towers. By foregrounding the story of Phillipe Petit and giving only brief mention to the tragedy of 9/11, Gerstein asserts that 9/11 cannot serve as the sole memory of towers. Instead, combined with the tragedy, is the memory of that “joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.”27

In contrast, Kalman goes much further in her depiction of the terrorist attacks, actually illustrating the planes flying towards the towers and the subsequent explosion. As Connelly describes it, Fireboat “show[s] the devastation of the explosions running off a double-page spread, as if the text cannot fully contain or describe the impact.”28 However, unlike most of Kalman’s illustrations, these panels are drawn without perspective and with minimal detail. The planes are simple black silhouettes and the towers are blocky rectangles. Thus even in this far more explicit depiction, Kalman limits the “realness” of the images, excluding fine detail of the planes or towers as well as leaving out the New York skyline. Despite Kalman’s much more complete representation of the attacks, Fireboat is still non-specific and non-instructive, refusing to engage the cause of the attacks or the motivations of those who perpetrated them. Like Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Kalman’s Fireboat is designed as much to avoid the attacks as to confront them and, in doing so, to offer comfort to the audience.

It is important to note that not all children’s books follow this pattern of continuity that involves shunning explicit description and explanation and leaving that role to adult readers. Yet it is books such as Fireboat and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers that have received recognition and celebration as exceptional picture books on the subject of 9/11. “I think the [books] that will do the best are the ones that are not as specific,” one bookseller noted just before the first anniversary of the attacks.29 Both The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Fireboat exemplify this notion in their success. These award-winning books minimize the attacks by placing them in a broader temporal and narrative context. They make it a priority to offer comfort to their audience, while still engaging the events to a far greater degree than those books designed simply for bibliotherapy such as Waber’s Courage. Despite this engagement with history, their function is not instructive. Kalman confronts the events far more directly than Gerstein, yet both authors deemphasize the historical, and offer minimal description of or explanation for September 11th, allowing the reader (adults and teachers) to fill that role and promote discussion.

Given the substantial role that adults play in selecting such books, it is important to consider the degree to which parents and teachers might project their own anxieties on to children. The feelings of rupture that so predominate the discourse of 9/11 may translate into a desire for a sense of continuity that can be conveyed to children, thus offering solace to both reader and audience. As Rycik points out “Very few books and articles have been written that address bibliotherapy for specific world events.”30 Consequently, it is difficult to know for certain whether these types of narratives engage 9/11 in a way that is the most beneficial to children. Regardless, these narratives make it clear that their priority is to provide a sense of comfort and continuity to their audience of young children. Kalman and Gerstein attempt to provide hope for the future by rooting their narratives in the past; they share an abiding faith in the ability of books to help children deal with trauma. As Kalman writes in the end of Fireboat, "Something new will be built. The heroes who died will be remembered forever.”31 This sentiment is as much hopeful as it is factual and reveals our understandable desire to offer empathy and protection in the face of frightening and unfamiliar times. 

American Library Association. “The Randolph Caldecott Medal.” http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/aboutcaldecott/aboutcaldecott.cfm, December 26, 2008.

Connelly, Paula T. “Retelling 9/11: How Picture Books Re-envision National Crises.” Lion & The Unicorn. 32.3 (Sept 2008): 288-303.

Cornett, C.E. & C.F. Cornett. Bibliotherapy: The Right Book at the Right Time. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1980.

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. New York: Square Fish, 2003.

Kalman, Maira. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey. New York: Putnam Juvenile, 2002.

Houghton Mifflin Books. “What is courage?” http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks/authors/waber, December 27, 2008.

Kleinfeld, N.R. “U.S. Attacked; Hijacked Jets Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon in Day of Terror.” New York Times. September 12, 2001: A1.

McMath, J. S. “Young children, national tragedy, and picture books.” Young Children, 52, 2002.

Poffenberger, Nancy. September 11, 2001: A Simple Account for Children.  Cincinnati, OH: Fun Pub., 2002.

Roback, Diane. “Selling 9/11 Books for Kids.” Publishers Weekly. 249.34 (August 26, 2002): 24-27.

Rycik, Mary Taylor. “9/11 to the Iraq War: Using Books to Help Children Understand Troubled Times.” Childhood Education. 82.3 (Spring 2006): 145-152.

Waber, Bernard. Courage. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2002.

1.) Kleinfeld, N.R. “U.S. Attacked; Hijacked Jets Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon in Day of Terror.” New York Times Online. September 12, 2001: A1.

2.) According to Mary Taylor Rycik, “Bernstein (1977) found that reading books as a form of therapy (bibliotherapy) gave children the opportunity to identify with others undergoing the same problems, helped them realize that they were not alone, provided catharsis, and facilitated the process of sharing their problems with others. Stamps (2003) suggests that books have the power to help students escape momentarily from a troubled world, and also to cope with problems…”

Rycik, Mary Taylor. “9/11 to the Iraq War: Using Books to Help Children Understand Troubled Times.” Childhood Education. 82.3 (Spring 2006): 145.

3.) American Library Association. “The Randolph Caldecott Medal.” http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/aboutcaldecott/aboutcaldecott.cfm, December 26, 2008.

4.) Connelly, Paula T. “Retelling 9/11: How Picture Books Re-envision National Crises.” Lion & The Unicorn. 32.3 (Sept 2008): 288.

5.) Roback, Diane. “Selling 9/11 Books for Kids.” Publishers Weekly. 249.34 (August 26, 2002): 25.

6.) For the purpose of this paper, I use the term bibliotherapy to refer generally to reading with the goal of providing emotional comfort and healing. Bibliotherapy is not strictly a therapeutic process used in a clinical setting but can also include the simple act of an adult reading to a child. It is the objective of the reading and not the setting that defines bibliotherapy.

7.) Waber, Bernard. Courage. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2002. Unpaged.

8.) Houghton Mifflin Books. “What is courage?” http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks/authors/waber, December 27, 2008.

9.) Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. New York: Square Fish, 2003, unpaged.

10.) The picture book has a complex relationship with its audience given that adults are the ones that usually choose, purchase and read them aloud. Throughout this paper, I make the assumption that the “reader” is separate from the “audience” and that teachers and parents are the ones usually responsible for reading these works to children.

11.) Connelly, pg. 294.

12.) Connelly, pg. 291.

13.) Roback, pg. 24.

14.) The Horn Book. “Boston Gloe – Horn Book Award Acceptance.” http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2004/jan04_kalman.asp, December 28, 2008.

15.) Connelly, pg. 297.

16.) Roback, pg. 25.

17.) Kalman, Maira. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey. New York: Putnam Juvenile, 2002. Unpaged.

18.) Gerstein, unpaged.

19.) In Gerstein, the phrase appears as “Now the towers are gone,” and in Kalman it reads “Now the Twin Towers are gone.”

20.) Kalman, unpaged.

21.) Roback, pg. 25.

22.) McMath, J. S. “Young children, national tragedy, and picture books.” Young Children, 52, 2002, pg. 82.

23.) Connelly, pg. 289.

24.) Kalman, unpaged.

25.) Gerstein, unpaged.

26.) Amazon.com. “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.” December 26, 2008.

27.) Gerstein, unpaged.

28.) Connelly, pg. 294.

29.) Roback, pg. 25.

30.) Rycik, pg. 145.

31.) Kalman, Maira. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey. New York: Putnam Juvenile, 2002. Unpaged.

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