There are several new books for young people out about September 11 this year. Incredibly, this is the 15th anniversary of that terrible day. The significance of what happened that day is different for kids, who weren’t yet born but have grown up in the world it created. Wendy Mills’ All We Have Left is a sad, intense and action-packed read for kids about September 11. The story is engagingly told through a split narrative.
In 2001, 16 year old Muslim teenager Alia lives in New York City, where she dreams of being a comic book artist. Proud of her faith, but unsure whether or not she will wear the hijab (her mother chooses not to and has left the choice up to her), Alia struggles with being herself and balancing both her parents expectations and desires for her and her own hopes and dreams. In other words, she is a typical teenager girl. Until September 11. After an argument with her parents, Alia impulsively decides to visit her father at work, where she can talk to him more. His work? Inside an office near the top of the twin towers.
In 2016, Jesse is a troubled teenager girl whose brother died in the attacks on September 11.Maddeningly, his family has no idea what he was doing in the towers that day. Since his death, when Jesse was only a toddler, her family has been slowly unraveling. Her father drinks too much and yells at the news on TV, distorted with rage and pain over the loss of his son. Her mother soldiers on, seemingly oblivious to the disorder at home and frustratingly absent when Jesse needs her the most. Jesse gets wrapped up with a group of hateful kids who spend their evenings tagging local businesses and landmarks around town. After a split second decision to help them deface a new Muslim Peace Center in town, Jesse finds herself in BIG TROUBLE.
And so the story goes. Alternating chapters tell of Alia’s harrowing experience inside one of the towers on the day of the attack and Jesse’s rapidly disintegrating home life and fallout from a foolish act. At the center of the story is a mystery. As she fights her way out of the towers, Alia has a companion, a blonde, blue eyed boy who just happens to be Jesse’s lost brother. What was he doing there ? Will Alia make it out alive? Or will she die along with Jesse’s brother?
This was a truly great read that really picks up in pace as you read it. In the beginning, it feels a lot like any other teen story. The setting and the problems are familiar. But as the action unfolds and the characters’ backgrounds are revealed, you will find yourself more and more invested. Wendy Mills does a wonderful, sensitive and nuanced job of portraying a difficult subject matter. You will feel for Jesse, despite her poor decision making and Mills does a fantastic job exploring her confused, complicated emotions about September 11 and what might make a young person participate in a racist act. Similarly, Alia is an incredible likable character who you will love spending time with . It was a pleasure to read about some of the customs and beliefs of Islam through her wonder-filled voice.
I started the book late Friday night and finished it Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and a good cry. Despite the teen protagonists, the language and interaction between them is mild, making this a perfect read for middle school and up.
Prescription: A worthy addition to the growing canon of 9/11 literature and a story that kids will relate to. With all of the anger-fueled hate and misunderstanding still broiling in this country, All We Have Left, feels powerful and relevant.