Children’s author Alan Gratz is known and revered for his historical fiction middle grade novels like his newest, “Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11.” As he has done in other novels including the award-winning “Refugee,” Gratz presents readers with two main characters from different backgrounds and different perspectives who share the story in alternating narratives. In “Ground Zero,” we meet Brandon Chavez from New York and Reshmina from Afghanistan.
Brandon is accompanying his father to work that day because he was suspended from school. But as we quickly find out, he’s not a bad kid. In fact, he was defending another student when he got into trouble. His father, who works at the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Windows on the World, can’t afford to take a day off of work, so Brandon goes to work with his dad. We learn that Brandon’s mother died when he was young, and he and his father are close. But little does nine-year-old Brandon know that when he sneaks away from the restaurant to try to make things right at school, the repercussions will change his life.
We also meet eleven-year-old Reshmina, who lives with her family in a rudimentary three-room house with dirt floors in Afghanistan. Reshmina’s older sister was killed on her wedding day by an American missile. Her village is poor, and they are battered between the Afghan National Army and the Americans on one side and the Taliban on the other. Reshmina’s twin brother, Pasoon, wants to join the Taliban, but she just wants to continue to learn English and find a different way of life than that expected of her — to get married at sixteen and start a family while caring for her husband’s house.
Time advances slowly as both children narrate what is happening on this momentous day, September 11th. We follow Brandon as he is in an elevator on the way down to the shopping mall under the plaza and the first plane strikes the building. We feel his terror, and we follow his actions as we see what developed that morning as each plane hit the towers and people desperately tried to decide what course of action to take. Many of the details are gruesome and difficult to read.
We also follow Reshmina as this is the day her village is searched by the Afghan army looking for a weapons cache that was reported. Then we find out that the Taliban planted that lie so they could plan an ambush, but when Reshmina comes across a wounded American soldier who asks her for help, she knows that if she helps him, she is putting her family and her entire village at risk of retaliation by the Taliban if they find out. Through her narrative, we learn about the violent history of Afghanistan. Her grandmother tells her of a time when women in their country could attend college and dress as they pleased. They could work outside the home. Then we learn that the Russians invaded, and the Americans armed the Muslims so they would repel the Russian invaders. That strategy worked well, but then the Taliban, as they were called, decided to repel the Americans also. Living under the Taliban is repressive, and women no longer have freedom or the right to an education. At one point, we learn what the anti-Soviet textbooks provided by the United States and smuggled into Afghanistan taught the children along with their ABC’s.
“K is for Kabul, the capital of our dear country. No one can invade our country. Only Muslim Afghans can rule over this country.
J is for Jihad. Jihad is the kind of war that Muslims fight in the name of God to free Muslims, and Muslim lands from the enemies of Islam. If infidels invade, jihad is the obligation of every Muslim.”
But while Gratz opens our eyes about the wrongness of foreign intervention in other countries like Afghanistan, he also softens the unspoken accusation. Reshmina realizes that her way and Pasoon’s were different. She realizes that “moving forward was scary. Sometimes you made mistakes. Sometimes you took the wrong path. And sometimes, even when you took the right path, things could go wrong.” That’s an important lesson to discuss with students. Sometimes even adults think they are doing the right thing; but we make mistakes, and the consequences might be horrible.
Gratz excels at taking two narratives and weaving them together so the reader’s emotions and interest never flag. The action is nonstop, and we feel compelled to keep reading to find out whether Reshmina manages to save the soldier, what happens to her village, and if Brandon manages to reunite with his father and get out of the World Trade Center alive. Of course, this being a Gratz novel, there is also a twist at the end connecting the two characters in an unexpected manner.
This is a book that would be a fabulous read aloud. I think that often children’s books need an adult voice to help see beyond the plot and delve into the character development and the author’s message, in this case that we all need family and community to make us stronger. Reshmina wouldn’t be able to save the soldier on her own — to do that she would need the help of her family and the whole village. Brandon also wouldn’t be able to survive the cataclysmic event on his own; he, too, needed the support of those around him to even have a chance at survival.
There’s some heavy lifting at the end when we see the connection between the two main characters, and they discuss 9/11 and what America has done in Afghanistan. Many young readers will understand what is being said, but because I’m a teacher, I know that children’s understanding of these important thoughts and ideas will be much deeper and more thoughtful with a guided discussion of the story and the implications.
I have no doubt there will be those who decry this story as “Unamerican,” yet I can think of no higher compliment than to recognize someone or something’s flaws and love it in spite of those flaws. Loving America and wanting to make America better doesn’t mean hiding past mistakes and flaws. It means recognizing them and working to make things right. Our foreign policy has not always been benign, and may have even been selfish as we sought to preserve our own interests over those of a foreign population. Gratz points out, in Reshmina’s voice, “But sometimes what was right and what was easy were two different things.” It’s a difficult lesson, but one that it’s never too early to learn.
For more information about this book, watch the book trailer on YouTube.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Scholastic Press, the publisher, for review purposes.