Towers Falling


By Jewell Parker Rhodes

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From award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes comes a powerful novel set fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks in a classroom of students who cannot remember the event but live through the aftermath of its cultural shift.

When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Dèja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?

Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes tells a powerful story about young people who weren’t alive to witness this defining moment in history, but begin to realize how much it colors their every day.


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Pop groans. He's having bad dreams again. I hear Ma trying to comfort him. My little sister, Leda, squirms. I whisper, "Hush. Sleep," and tuck the sheet beneath her chin. We share a bed. She turns on her side; her feet kick my knees.

On the floor, Raymond's arm clutches his pillow. He sleeps through anything. I never do. Even when we weren't living in one room, I heard Pop's nightmare groans, heard him and Ma arguing about money. Arguing he needed to get a job.

Pop didn't get a job. Ma's waitress job barely covers food. We ended up here—Avalon Family Residence. It sounds nice, but it's not. Peeling paint, cockroaches, and no water, refrigerator, or stove in our tiny room. We're squeezed together like rats. Five people in a room instead of one or two.

"No sense complaining," Ma always says. But it makes me want to burst, hit, or break something. I'm the oldest. I've got to be responsible and I hate it. I've got to get Raymond and Leda ready for day care and watch them afterward. Pop doesn't do anything. After his bad dreams, he stands on the street corner. He doesn't talk with other out-of-work men. He freezes, like no one else exists. When his head aches fierce, he has to lie down. Nobody is allowed even to whisper or move. But his cough is worse. Sometimes, he can't breathe. Like he's got asthma or something.

I pat Leda's head. Sleeping, she looks like a baby princess. But I don't tell her that.

Eyes closed, I grimace. I wish I could sleep and have no worries, like her.

Today I start my new school. I worry if I'll like it. I worry if anyone will like me. Last year, even my best friend, Keisha, stopped speaking to me when my family became homeless. Like it was my fault. Like I was going to give her germs or something. Like my family and me were just trash.

Ma shakes me. She thinks I'm asleep.

In the shelter, even when I'm awake, I sometimes keep my eyes closed. What I see makes me angry. Sad-looking people. Nice, but sad.

Some creepy people, too. Homeless shelters have their own kind of gangs. I'm used to gangs. Places we lived always had gangs. But shelter gangs aren't about guns and drugs. They're about roaming, stealing, keeping an eye out for what can be taken.

I'm not used to eating with thieves in a gross cafeteria. Or passing them in narrow halls where they try to jump you, steal your shoes or money. I walk the halls with fists ready.

"Dèja?" Ma says softly. "Here."

A pink ribbon sways like a snake above my face. Ma knows I don't like pink, but she must've found the ribbon or bought it cheap.


"You get ready now. I'll take Ray and Leda to day care."

"You'll be late for work."

"Better than you being late for your first day of school." She doesn't smile. I don't remember the last time Ma smiled. She's always tired, with dark smudges beneath her eyes.

"Thanks, Ma." Her boss will yell at her. Even if she's just ten minutes late, he'll pay her an hour less.

Worse, I'm not sure I want to go to school. School doesn't help with real life.

Double worse—Pop should get up, but he doesn't. He tosses and turns, tangling sheets.

Pop's never any help. With Ma at work, I'm the one to tell Ray and Leda there's no money for ice cream when the Mister Softee truck chimes. No clothes without patches. No Nickelodeon. Our TV was sold months ago.

I ball my fist. I could punch something. Instead, I get up, kiss Ma, and grab my clothes. I hope no one else is in the women's bathroom. I hope there aren't any boys trying to look in.


I quickly open the door. My mouth is pressed tight, mean. Arms crossed, I look around, daring anyone to disrespect me. But nobody's paying attention to me. Everyone's giggling, meeting up with friends.

"What'd you do?" "What'd you do?" I hear "Disney World." "Jersey Shore." "Basketball camp."

I hope the teacher doesn't say, "Write an essay about your summer vacation." If she does, I'll leave the paper blank. Else I'll have to lie. Say eviction is the best vacation. Hearing Ma weeping and Pop wheezing, cracking his knuckles while Leda sucks her pacifier double-time and Ray holds my hand.

I never lie. I won't. It's better to keep quiet.

My family has never had a vacation. Less Pop not working is a vacation. I do remember one afternoon in Central Park. Raymond had a blue and cherry ice. I had a pretzel with salt. I ate slowly, watching trees sway and squirrels leaping across branches. Ma and Pop hugged. Pop even smiled. It was years ago. Leda wasn't even born.

Besides, I don't like essays. Why write when you have nothing good to say? I'm just trying to get by—eight more years, I'll be eighteen, and I won't have to live in a shelter. Or go to another new school. I'll be on my own, taking care of myself. I won't ever get evicted.

I look at the kids. Boys wear Nikes and Converse. The girls wear earrings, charm bracelets. Everybody smells like new clothes.

Funny how the homeless shelter is in a nicer part of town than I've ever lived before. There's an actual grocery store instead of a deli. Kids here are all colors; in my old neighborhood, everybody was black. Except for Avalon's ugliness, this neighborhood is richer—brownstones with flower boxes instead of high-rises with ugly window air conditioners.

I tug my T-shirt. It's a bit small; my belly button shows. My jeans are clean, but my feet are in flip-flops. My toenails aren't even painted.

Slipping into a back-row chair, I pull the pink ribbon off my ponytail, stuff it into my pocket.

A boy two chairs away blinks behind glasses.

"What're you looking at?"

"I'm Ben."

I stare at the wimpy hand. It's pink and stubby.

He sniffs, pulls his hand back, uncrosses his legs. Cowboy boots. I can't believe it. Who wears cowboy boots?

"I'm new, too. Isn't that why you're sitting in the back?"

I give him my meanest stare.

"Not talking to anyone?"

My cheeks feel hot. I don't like anybody figuring me out. "I'm talking to you," I snap.

"I talked first."

I think Ben's sassing me and I ought to hit him. But his face is round, doughboy soft. Pleasant. Don't know why I'm thinking pleasant—never ever used the word before—but it popped inside my head.

I exhale. Ben reminds me of Raymond, not street-smart. Just nice in a dumb kind of way.

The classroom is bright and fancy. Streamers decorate the walls, and pictures of books are thumbtacked on bulletin boards. There's even a bookcase with new books and two red beanbag chairs. A huge calendar with a picture of blue-green water hangs on the wall. An ocean? Brooklyn doesn't do oceans, just sidewalks, buildings, and boring rivers.

One square has 1 for the first day of school.

How many days do I have to be here?

1 is a lonely number, too. Nobody's paying me (or Ben) any attention—girls are giggling, boys high-fiving and gently shoving each other like they've known each other forever. I groan. These kids have probably been together since first grade. My luck.

I look at Ben. He's smiling like I'm his best friend. He's got freckles, wire-rim glasses, and hair so short he looks like he's a soldier.

We're losers. I'd be cool if I had nice clothes. Ben will never be cool.


She's short, not much bigger than me. Her hair is curly black, her lips bright red, and she wears high heels. They click-click as she comes into the room, smiling, looking like a Barbie doll. At my old school, Mrs. Baker wore tennis shoes, sat, always complaining about how her feet hurt "teaching, running after you kids." I never saw her run once.

Miss Garcia claps her hands—one, two, three—amazing, kids quiet and sit in their seats, hands folded on their desk. No way.

One kid dashes for his backpack.

"Charles, sit." Laser-eyed, Miss Garcia stares and Charles—not even a Charlie—sits.

"I was just getting my pencil."

"You'll get it later." Then, as if she remembers, Miss Garcia says, "Please. You'll get it later, please." Then she smiles extra wide like the lips do on Mrs. Potato Head. She's nervous. Her red index finger taps the desk; her forehead shines with sweat. Miss Garcia didn't even introduce herself. I know her name 'cause it's written in big script on the whiteboard. She stops smiling, then, remembering, smiles again.

I look over at Ben. He nods, looking at me. He's not dumb, after all. He knows no teacher acts like this on the first day of school. At my old school, there were usually the bubbly types who work really hard and leave after a year. Or drill sergeants who shout, "Do this. Do that. Stop talking." They yell until my head aches and I don't learn anything.

Miss Garcia seems a bubbly type, but not so bubbly today. She also seems like a bubbly type who didn't quit teaching. At my old school, teachers were either really old with wrinkles and graying hair or else young with ponytails and, sometimes, pimples. Miss Garcia's skin is clear; her hair, loose. On her finger is a diamond ring.

"New school year," pipes Miss Garcia. "Principal Thompson wants us to try a new curriculum." She licks her lips. "All lessons are to be integrated."

What's that mean? This school is already integrated. More integrated than any school I've ever been.

In front of me, heads turn, kids whisper. Something's not right. Different. Even the fifth-grade regulars are surprised by Miss Garcia's nervous squeaks.

"'Be relevant,' Principal Thompson likes to say. 'History is alive.'"

I'm getting worried. Principals are always giving orders. Maybe Miss Garcia doesn't like it?

Ben raises his hand.

"Yes?" Miss Garcia squints at him like she's trying to remember who he is.

"Aren't you going to introduce the new kids?"

Every head spins toward us. I want to kick Ben. I hate being the center of attention. My clothes aren't fashionable. I don't even have a backpack. Or a pencil.

I squint my "don't you make fun of me" look as hard as I can. Nobody stares back. Or gives me an evil look. One girl with a head scarf waves. I sigh. Doesn't she know she's supposed to play it cool? New kids have to prove themselves.

"My name is Benjamin Rubin, the third. Call me Ben."

Voices murmur, gurgle, shout, "Hi, Ben."

"This here is—"

Palm open, Ben waves toward me. I'm supposed to speak. I don't want to speak. But if I don't speak, they might think I'm afraid.

"Dèja. Just Dèja," I say. "The original. One and only."

I don't say my last name, because, in my old neighborhood, folks knew the Barneses were really poor. Saw boxes of our clothes, Ma's trunk, her "Hope Chest" she calls it, broken in the street. Saw Leda hanging on to her raggedy baby doll. Raymond crying. Me helping Ma and Pop stuff what they could in our car and still have enough room for five of us to sleep. After a month living in the car, we got a room at Avalon.

"Welcome," says Miss Garcia, and I notice this time her smile is for real. "We don't get many new students. Especially in the fifth grade."

"Nope," says the girl with the scarf. "We're a small school. Most of us have been friends since first grade."

I knew it.

"Welcome, Benjamin and Dèja. Students, say hello to Ben and Dèja."

Kids say "hi." Some say their name. I'm surprised. For the first time, Miss Garcia looks relaxed, happy. Then she stands taller, clasping her hands.

"We're going to have an interesting start of the year. Special."

Miss Garcia's still smiling, but her voice trembles like "special" is a problem. She breathes deep and shakes herself. Her hoop earrings wiggle. "Today is September 6.

"This is an important week," says Miss Garcia, looking left at the wall of windows. "An important month."

I'm worried again. It's September. What's so important about that? School always starts in September.

Miss Garcia claps her hands again—one, two, three. We all quiet.

"Our first essay. Please write about your summer vacation."

Everybody groans except Ben. He opens his backpack and hands me a No. 2 pencil. I don't know why I take it.

"Sabeen, please pass out the paper." The girl from earlier leaps up. Teacher's pet, I think.

Sabeen is smiling, passing lined paper to the left then the right, between aisles. Some kids even say, "Thanks, Sabeen."

She pauses, looks at me. She looks at Ben. She looks at the two empty desks separating us.

"Here." The lined paper flops like a dead bird's wing. I don't take it. Sabeen places the sheet on my desk. "Here," she smiles, turns to Ben.


"Miss Garcia, I'm going to sit here. Between Ben and Dèja."

"That's fine."

Sabeen sits closer to Ben than to me. Good thing. I was going to yank her scarf if she sat next to me.


Sometimes it isn't about what you do, it's about what you see. The cafeteria is bustling with little kids opening superhero or My Little Pony lunch boxes. They're sitting at tables, legs swinging off the ground, giggling, unwrapping sandwiches while teachers watch them. Older kids—fourth and fifth graders—are in line as women with hairnets pile their trays with spaghetti, a fruit cup, and a cookie. Sabeen grabs a carton of milk. Ben's got a paper sack, but he goes through the line and grabs an apple and an orange juice. Then they pay.

I spin around, push through the flapping doors, and walk into the hall. It's quiet. Everybody's at lunch, including the teachers. These halls are calm, clean.

My stomach rumbles. I sip from the water fountain.

I like the hallway walls—painted sky blue and bright yellow. No curse words or graffiti. Most of the walls are blank, but there's a sign for each grade.



all the way up to:


I think the classes are going to decorate the walls with art and class projects. Fifth grade will probably post "Summer Vacation" essays. My page will be blank.

I walk farther down, and on the wall across from the girls' bathroom, there's a world map with colored pins. At the top, the sign reads:




  • Praise for Towers Falling:

    "History made personal--and what a person! Deja's voice is real and memorable, her compelling story one of hope unmarred by sentimentality."
    Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medalist and New York Times bestselling author
  • "This tender retelling of tragedy is a solid vessel to help young readers understand the gravity of 9/11 and how it touches all Americans, no matter where we come from. "
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "This is a welcome contribution to children's literature."—School Library Journal
  • "Rhodes approaches a complex, painful topic with insight and grace, providing context to an event distant to the book's audience."
    Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Jul 12, 2016
Page Count
240 pages

Jewell Parker Rhodes

About the Author

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor; Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children's Book Award; and the New York Times-bestselling Ghost Boys; as well as Bayou Magic; Towers Falling; Black Brother, Black Brother; and Paradise on Fire. She has written many award-novels for adults, including, MAGIC CITY, a novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Jewell is the Virginia G. Piper Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at Arizona State University.

Learn more about this author