Back when I was a branch youth services librarian, I did weekly storytimes for 1st grade classes from the local elementary school. They were such a fun age to work with because they are young enough to still be into picturebooks and old enough to discuss them. I was constantly looking for the next engaging picturebook to read to them. By far the most successfully engaging of all the books I ever read to them was Mordicai Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.
This Caldecott-winning picturebook, published in 2003, is about French street performer and tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his brazen and illegal tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1974. The book is wonderfully written and amazingly illustrated (as you can see from the cover, his choice of views and use of perspective are impeccable), but more importantly it has intrigue and daring and action, and, unbelievably to my 1st grade audience, it is a true story. The kids would literally hold their breath waiting for what happens on the next page.
At the end of the book, there is an illustration of the two towers as a sort of mirage and the text says “the towers are gone now…” As you can imagine, for a group of children who weren’t even alive on September 11, 2001, this ending was not what they expected. “What happened to the towers?” someone would inevitably ask. I could see the look of horror on their teachers’ faces as they waited to see how I answered the question. In one instance, a fellow classmate piped up and told the version of the 9/11 story that he had been told by his parents (he did a great job, by the way), but in the other instances, it fell on me to explain. I kept it simple and brief: “In 2001 some very bad people who wanted to hurt our country caused an explosion and a fire that brought the towers down for good and scared a lot of people. It was a terrible tragedy but it also brought a lot of people together to help each other.” Short on time and not wanting to scare anyone (including the teachers!) or step on parents’ toes, I offered another picturebook – Fireboat by Maira Kalman – to anyone who wanted to read more and told them to ask their parents to tell them the story. After all, everyone remembers where they were when the towers fell down.