Tom Rogers Gives Young Readers Insight into the Events of 9/11
Tom Rogers was asleep in his home in the Los Angeles hills when the rogue plane flew into the North Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001. He woke up to the phone ringing, a call from his wife telling him to turn on the TV. He did, just in time to see another plane hit the South Tower. The total destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the attack on the Pentagon, the hijacking and subsequent crash of Flight 93, and the indelible impression these events left on our collective psyche forever changed our country and every American who remembers that day.
Several years later, Rogers was stunned to realize that children who were too young to have personal memories of 9/11 and those who hadn’t been born yet had little knowledge of it. He decided to do something to change that. His middlegrade book, Eleven (Alto Nido Press), about a boy whose 11th birthday falls on 9/11, was released in 2014. “The events of that day need to be told and passed on,” Rogers says. “I know it’s hard for people to talk about it. It’s still fresh for many of us and we still get emotional, but we need to make sure that future generations don’t forget.”
A question from Rogers’ young nephew planted the seed for what would be his debut children’s book. “What’s the big deal about 9/11?” asked the boy who was only two years old on that fateful day. All he knew, he said, was that it had something to do with someone blowing up a building in New York City. Surprised by this, Rogers asked some of his teacher friends what they taught their students about 9/11. They said they didn’t teach anything due to a lack of age-appropriate books on the subject and the fact that it wasn’t in the curriculum. That’s when Rogers became determined to write Eleven.
The events of that day need to be told and passed on. I know it’s hard for people to talk about it. It’s still fresh for many of us and we still get emotional, but we need to make sure that future generations don’t forget.”
The book introduces Jersey City resident Alex Douglas on Sept. 10, 2001, the eve of his 11th birthday. When Alex realizes he’s not going to get the only thing he really wants for his birthday—a dog—he has a temper tantrum, yelling “I hate you,” at his father just before going to bed. When Alex wakes up the next morning, his father has already left for his job, driving a commuter train to the World Trade Center. Rogers says he chose to home Alex in New Jersey because that state suffered the greatest loss of life that day. “I also liked the perspective of being separate from New York City, but close,” he says. “I thought that would stand for how the rest of the country watched these things unfold. For me in California, it felt like it was happening to a next-door neighbor.”
At first, Alex is having his best birthday yet. “School is canceled mid-morning and all the students are sent home,” says Rogers. “Along the way, he rescues a stray dog and plays baseball with his buddies.” Then Alex learns about the terrorist attacks. “He wonders if he’ll ever see his dad again or if the last thing he says to him will be those three words of anger,” says Rogers.
In Eleven, Rogers weaves three equally gripping plot threads. There’s Alex; an old man waiting for his son, presumably affected by the attacks, to come home; and a mystery character escaping from the collapsing towers. “It’s through his eyes that we experience what was really happening at Ground Zero,” says Rogers. Readers will be left wondering if the survivor is Alex’s father or the old man’s son. “Part of the appeal for kids is trying to sort out the mystery and figure out who he is,” Rogers says.
Each Eleven chapter page is time-stamped, reminiscent of the 9/11 Commission Report Rogers read as part of his research for the book. “It goes through the events of the day in minute-by-minute detail,” he says. “I thought including times would help give kids a sense of the immediacy and the tick-by-tick progression of the day, the way we experienced it. Anyone learning about 9/11 now has the benefit of hindsight, but that morning, once that second plane hit, that’s when it switched from an accident to an attack. We didn’t know if there was going to be 20 more hijacked planes or 500. We didn’t know what would happen next.”
Rogers says he wrote the book with middle-school readers in mind. “That’s when I started to figure out the world doesn’t always work the way it should, that the world isn’t always fair,” he says. “There’s a real appeal for kids that age to learn about what it’s like when tragedy strikes and to think about how they would respond. Plus, kids are fascinated by things that freak out adults. They’re always trying to figure out what makes this alien species tick.”
When Rogers conducts author visits to schools, he always asks teachers to share their 9/11 stories with their students. “The room gets real quiet,” says Rogers. “The kids pay attention because it’s a little bit forbidden. It’s unusual for them to see their teacher vulnerable. It triggers interest and empathy and makes them want to understand.” Rogers says most students grasp the intensity of that day. “I feel like they get it,” he says. “They understand the scope of the loss and the tragedy. But I also want them to know how something so bad brought out the better side of people’s nature; how people gave blood and donated money and held vigils.”
In the four years since Eleven was released, Rogers has been writing for Disney’s animated series Elena of Avalor, now in its fourth season. However, he’s still very involved with others working to keep the memory of 9/11 alive, including educator Lesley Roessing, who’s put together a 9/11 curriculum for schools. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum carries Eleven in its bookstore. “It’s really gratifying to have my book there as part of their educational outreach,” Rogers says. He has also united with fellow 9/11 children’s authors. “Nora Baskin, who wrote Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story, Gae Polisner, who wrote The Memory of Things, and I did an event together near Ground Zero last summer and became almost instant friends,” he says. “We’ll be meeting up for an event in New Jersey on September 11th this year.”
No matter where he is, Rogers takes time on every 9/11 anniversary to remember the lives lost and reflect on an experience he’ll never forget. “I had the same response most people had,” says Rogers. “First, a broiling emotion. Then anger, shock, worry, dread and helplessness, but also wanting to reach out and help.” At the end of that raw, sorrowful day, Rogers and his wife gathered with a small group of friends for dinner. “That was the quietest and most emotional dinner I’ve ever had,” he recalls. “I still get choked up thinking about it. We all just wanted to be together to reaffirm the connections we had with the people we love. And ultimately, that’s what this book is about.”