Before and After 9/11 by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Anyone who knows even a little about the publishing business would understand that there could be no way, when conceiving of a new book project, to predict when it will see the light of day. So it wasn’t until my manuscript Nine, Ten was nearing publication that I realized that this year is actually the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
And that got me thinking.
Is there a length of time? A healing period that a society needs in order to process such an event? Does it take a certain distance to even begin to see it clearly? And does this come from respect? From fear? From incomprehension? All of the above?
There have, of course, been some notable examples.
In 2006, Oliver Stone released his film The World Trade Center. It got mostly positive reviews, but was anyone ready to see that film?
Joyce Maynard published The Usual Rules in 2004, which was good enough (actually, it’s an amazing book) to be included in the YALSA Top Ten list.
And who can forget (or remember) Neil Young’s single Let’s Roll that was being played on the radio by December 2001, and then released in a longer version on his album Are you Passionate? I love Neil Young but this is not his best work.
So, why now? Why fifteen years later when an entire generation of children are coming of age, all born after September 11, 2001, are there several 9/11 stories emerging? In fact, last week’s Nerdy Book Club post was Gae Polisner’s cover reveal for her breathtaking YA novel The Memory of Things. Jewell Parker Rhodes is publishing a middle grade, Towers Falling, with Little, Brown, which takes place in present day. And S&S has Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu that tells the story from the point of view of a Japanese-American girl living abroad. Perhaps the explanation is just this simple: There is a before. And there is an after.
This is our after.
An artist’s role is, and always has been, to reflect the society and the time in which he or she lives, and thereby, record it. It is not the artist’s job to answer questions, but rather to ask them. To raise them. To point out hypocrisy, courage, hope, despair, injustice, controversy. Not to judge and not to teach, but to shine a light into the deepest corners of society and evoke conversation.
When I wrote Nine, Ten I didn’t want to write about the horrific events of September 11th, but rather to show how the world radically shifted in one crystal clear, blue-skied autumn morning. I wanted to write about large global change using four small stories, the very personal to reflect the universal. The before, and the after.
I wasn’t thinking about diversity or politics. I was thinking about the world we left behind, about how it would be remembered, and what I could add to this trope. I was thinking about other moments in our relatively recent history when our world was redefined in a single moment: Pearl Harbor, JFK, MLK, Bobby. It occurred to me then, that young people under the age of, say, twenty don’t have a clue about the before.
They wouldn’t remember a time when you could walk into an airport without a ticket, and wait at the gate for your family to get off the plane. They are completely unfazed when stopped at the entrance to theaters, museums, sporting events, even schools, and asked to show the contents of their pocketbooks and backpacks. They don’t remember when you could sit in your car at the curb near a public building and not be chased off by security or police. They don’t bat an eye when the postal worker asks if a package contains anything “fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous.”
I wanted to write a book about four children whose lives are about to be affected in various ways, which the reader may realize, but the characters themselves suspect nothing of.
Naheed, in Ohio, is Muslim. Will lives in the tiny town of Shanksville, PA. Aimee lives in Los Angeles but her mother, who works for Cantor Fitzgerald, is on her way to New York City for a business meeting. And Sergio lives in Brooklyn, where on September 10th, he meets a new friend and mentor, who happens to be a fireman.
These four children represent the innocence we lost that day, and also, the hope and spirit we found. Without giving too much away, all the characters in my book survive, and not just survive, but live to grow and change, adapt, and discover bravery, strength, and compassion.
These four characters never actually meet, but just as we are all part of a larger humanity that we will never know personally, we still need to care about one another. And take care of one another. Isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that why we are on this planet?
A white boy, a Jewish girl, an African-American boy, and a Muslim girl, all come together in the end, and in doing so they made me cry. You know that corny expression about a book just writing itself? All the writers in the room roll their eyes, because that never happens?
It really doesn’t.
This book was blood, sweat, and tears all the way. The timeline was brutal, and adhering to a real history that has been measured and documented down the very second, was something I’d never attempted to do before.
But, the ending.
The ending wrote itself.
I knew I was bordering on sappy. Except the four of them, Will, Aimee, Sergio, and Naheed, wouldn’t let it happen any other way. I don’t regret my sentimentality. Writing in a style that makes readers feel deeply is what connects us. And being connected is what gives me hope, and makes me proud to be a human being.
Before and after.
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the author of thirteen novels for young readers. She has won several awards, including the 2010 ALA Schneider Family Book Award for Anything But Typical. Ruby on the Outside, her latest middle grade novel, was recently awarded the International Literacy Association’s 2016 Notable Books for a Global Society. This June 28th, Nine/Ten: A September 11 Story will be published and just has received a starred review from Kirkus.You can see more about Nora’s titles at norabaskin.com or follow her on Twitter @noraraleighb.