Ground Zero by Alan Gratz

“Brandon stared at the picture of himself. Dark, messy hair. Brown skin and high cheekbones, like his dad. A slightly upturned nose and blue eyes, like his mom. His name—Brandon Chavez—was printed beneath the picture, along with the date: September 11, 2001.”

– Alan Gratz, “Ground Zero”

Review:

Trigger Warnings: 9/11 terrorist attacks, War on Terror, bombings, burnings, suicide, graphic depictions of violence and injuries, death

Ground Zero by Alan Gratz is a dual narrative, detailing the experience of a nine year old boy on September 11th, 2001, in New York City, as well as a day in the life of an eleven year old girl on September 11th, 2019, in a rural Afghanistan. Their circumstances are eerily and achingly similar, despite being eighteen years and thousands of miles apart.

First the story starts with Brandon, who has been suspended from school for fighting a bully. His mother died of cancer when he was only four and his father simply cannot take another day off from work. There’s no one at home to watch Brandon, so he goes to work with his father on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. It has been twenty years now for us as readers, so we know what comes next for this young boy.

Reshmina’s story introduces something unexpected for adult readers who remember the September 11th attacks well. She is a young girl in rural Afghanistan whose elder sister was killed by American soldiers and now her twin brother is considering running away into the mountains to join the Taliban in order to get revenge. Reshmina dreams of peace and of being allowed to complete her education and work as a teacher instead of getting married and being subjugated to a husband’s whims.

Gratz is a master of creating parallels within a dual narrative and he does not disappoint with this novel. Metaphors of darkness and blindness build suspense and empathy. As we know with the subject matter of the story, events soon turn dark in a sense greater than the absence of light. Brandon is in the North Tower when the first plane hits. His world becomes darker than he could ever imagine when he encounters the injured and those with no escape from the flames. The author spares no detail and even as an adult reader, I found these depictions to be the most harrowing of the entire book. On the other side of the world, Reshmina’s world grows infinitely darker and more dangerous when she and her family offer refuge to a blinded American soldier after a battle erupts near her village.

The book raises several important questions and does not shy away from hard political topics. Reshmina questions the American soldier with a depth and clarity that Americans often lack when considering The War on Terror. I found her questions and sentiments to be thought provoking and even profound. Readers should pause in these moments and reflect on a more global perspective instead of giving into temptation to rush through the narrative to find out what happens to her, to the American soldier, or to Brandon in the towers.

Ground Zero is an excellent read for those with upper middle grade or older children who are curious about 9/11 or how those attacks led to a seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan. Even though the novel is middle grade, I would be cautious handing this to a pre-teen or junior high aged child without any parental guidance. Descriptions are graphic and should be handled with care, especially in a younger audience. Overall, I’ve yet to find a better or more empathetic resource for teaching the horror and the ramifications of 9/11 to younger audiences. Despite its all-too-realistic visualizations, I recommend Ground Zero wholeheartedly to reluctant readers, parents, and teachers alike.

Scholastic has a discussion guide for parents and students that can be found here.

“There are rules, Brandon…You punch somebody, you get suspended, no matter why you did it. Your actions have consequences. If they didn’t, you’d be the bully.”

– Alan Gratz, “Ground Zero”

Pros:

  • Strong protagonists, especially Reshmina who dares to question the US and its soldiers
  • Vivid descriptions, even when characters cannot see
  • Emotionally gut-wrenching
  • Thought provoking looks at both 9/11 and the War on Terror
  • A global perspective and an extensive history of foreign conquests in Afghanistan

Cons:

  • Some may find the descriptions of suicide, burns, and injuries to be too graphic for the novel’s target middle grade audience.

Review:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“You Americans think you can fix everything by throwing money at it,” she added. “But your friend was right. This is like the Stone Age. Because no one will let us get past the Stone Age. Not when there is nothing but war. Do you understand? The best thing you can do to help us is leave us alone.”

– Alan Gratz, “Ground Zero”

Recommended For:

  • Parents to read with middle grade or older children who are learning the details of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for the first time or are curious to learn more
  • Young adult reluctant readers, both male and female
  • History students
  • Those wanting to learn more about the consequences of the United States military leaving Afghanistan as well as the parallels between terrorist attacks and military strikes
  • Fans of any Alan Gratz novel, especially Refugee

Books to Read if You Loved Ground Zero:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • The author’s note at the end of the book reveals that 29% of civilian casualties in the War on Terror in Afghanistan were caused by the US Military and allied Afghan troops. What are you thoughts on this? Can these casualties be justified?
  • This book was published just before the US withdrew from Afghanistan. In the book, Taz discusses what might happen if we were to withdraw military from the country. What do you think is to come in the future for Afghan families like Reshmina’s?
  • Should middle grade books (targeted for grades 4-8+) include graphic details of suffering, such as the details included in this book about how those in the Twin Towers died on 9/11? Why or why not?

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