There’s no easy way to talk with children about disasters. Parents and teachers can omit the disturbing details, but the truth comes out.
So how do we introduce kids to this kind of information? That’s the question Lauren Tarshis seeks to answer with “I Survived” — a historical fiction series for middle-grade readers. The sixth book, which has just been published, is “I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001” (Scholastic, $4.99 paper).
Tarshis was reluctant to write about 9/11. A mother of four, she worked a mile from the World Trade Center at the time of the disaster and was traveling on an airplane that day. She’s been trying to put it all behind her ever since. But after receiving thousands of emails suggesting she write about “the planes in the trade center,” she decided to create a “siloed (story) that would satisfy children’s curiosity but spare them the horrific and political aspects and religious overtones.”
Disturbing as the Sept. 11 attack is, the subject is ideal for Tarshis’ readers, who weren’t alive when it happened but whose lives have been shaped by the after-effects. Still, “I Survived” is not a nonfiction blow-by-blow. It’s a fictionalized account from the perspective of 11-year-old Lucas, whose father and uncle are New York firefighters. Lucas lives in a suburb but has taken the train into the city on his own that morning, emerging from Penn Station and using the World Trade Center towers to navigate his way to his Uncle Benny’s fire station. Hearing the roar of the first plane, he looks up and sees it “plunged like a knife into the side of one of the buildings.”
There are no references to bodies falling out of buildings or details about the hijackers and their extensive planning, just Lucas’ firsthand experience of seeing the crash and experiencing its chaotic aftermath with his family. While it’s chilling to imagine a child witnessing 9/11, Tarshis embeds the story in a larger plot about Lucas’ aspiration to play football and his parents’ opposition, which accounts for about a third of the book.
When detailing Lucas’ experience in New York, Tarshis focuses on details that are vivid without being gruesome, placing much of the emphasis on the boy. Were the plane’s instruments broken, he wonders? Maybe the pilot was confused or a movie was being filmed and something went horribly wrong? Lucas translates the 10 floors destroyed by the first plane into a metric he understands — football — and tries to imagine 10 football fields on fire and smoking.
Tarshis’ decision to focus on Lucas was influenced by her years as the editor of Storyworks, a magazine for fourth- and fifth-grade students published by Scholastic, which also publishes the “I Survived” books. “Whenever I wrote about a disaster,” she recalls, “whether it was a blizzard or an avalanche, I got an incredible response from kids, but I noticed something really interesting. They weren’t so interested in the death and destruction. They were really interested in the boy. They were so eager to understand what it was like to be in an event like this.”
Tarshis first conceptualized the “I Survived” series as narrative nonfiction, but finding relatable characters of the appropriate age proved challenging, so she decided to write historical fiction instead.
According to Tarshis, resilience is the theme that connects all the books in the “I Survived” series. “It’s the people. People have come through unbelievable ordeals and many of them move on and thrive. It’s inspiring.”