Remembering 9/11 Through Picture Books

Twenty years later, the events of 9/11 may be etched in our memories, but young children may know nothing about this painful, pivotal event in our history. For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we have three picture books to recommend that will help children begin to understand why we pause to hold special memorials on this day.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein

For younger children, this award-winning picture book gives an introduction to the Twin Towers, with stunning illustrations that give a sense of their immense size—and the bravery of the French aerialist, Philippe Petit, who walked between the buildings on a wire cable in 1974 as their construction was near completion. The secret, daring installation of the cable and then Petit’s astonishing performance in the sky—90 minutes of walking, dancing and even lying down on the wire—makes for an enthralling adventure story, heightened by the panoramic views in the illustrations. The final pages gently explain that the Twin Towers are no longer standing, but the book keeps its focus what Petit meant when he said, “I’m not a daredevil. I’m a poet in the sky.”

Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John Harvey, by Maira Kalman

If your child is old enough to hear a bit about the 9/11 attacks, this nonfiction book is a celebration of New York City, firefighting and some of the volunteers who rushed to help at the Twin Towers. The story opens in 1931, when “the largest, fastest and shiniest fireboat of them all” is launched on the Hudson, with a dog named Smokey on its crew, ready to pump vast amounts of water from the river onto fires along the city’s docks and piers. When the fireboat is decommissioned in the 1995 after a lifetime of service, it’s rescued and restored by a group of New Yorkers to take children on tours. On 9/11, however, the John Harvey is rushed into service again, pumping water for four days and nights onto Ground Zero, where the fire hydrants had become inoperable. Kalman’s painterly illustrations bring to life the details of the fireboat and the many heroes who “sprang into action” in those terrible days.

14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deely, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez

This now-classic picture book shows how 9/11 had an emotional impact on the whole world. It’s the true story of Kimeli Naiyomah, a medical student in New York City in September 2001. When he returns to his village in Kenya nine months later, he tells the elders the story of 9/11, which has “burned a hole in his heart.” The Maasai villagers immediately ask, “What can we do for these poor people?” The village elders contact the U.S. Embassy and offer the American people a gift of 14 cows, because “the cow is life” among the Maasai. An American diplomat comes to the tiny village to formally accept the gift in a special ceremony, “because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.” The story powerfully conveys the emotions of a witness to 9/11 within a cross-cultural story of generosity.

Each of these notable picture books, like the beautiful memorial tree on our campus that shelters our students as they read, will give parents a starting place to explain to children why we commemorate this day.