I remember exactly where I was when 9/11 happened. I saw endless images from New York for weeks, but I don’t really recall anything about the happenings at the Pentagon. Today’s picture book uses poetry told from the point of view of children in the vicinity of the Pentagon to recount those circumstances.
Jacqueline Jules is a former school librarian and author of forty books for young readers, including the Zapato Power series, the Sofia Martinez series, and Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation. She is also a poet and the author of three poetry chapbooks: Field Trip to the Museum, Stronger than Cleopatra, and Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Cicada, Highlights for Children, Cricket, Spider, YARN, Germ Magazine, The Poetry Friday Anthologies, and One Minute Till Bedtime. She lives in Port Washington, NY. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
SMOKE AT THE PENTAGON: POEMS TO REMEMBER is an incredibly powerful picture book that uses poetry fictionally written from the point of view of children about the events as they happened on September 11, 2001 at the Pentagon. That isn’t something we always hear about when there is talk about that horrible day. It’s twenty-two years later, but this day and the things that happened on it aren’t soon forgotten.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? How long have you been writing? Have you always wanted to write picture books? What brought you to this book?
Jacqueline: At eight years old, I declared my intention to be an author during an elementary school unit on careers. I was always an avid reader so the desire to create my own book came naturally. But it took me thirty years to achieve my goal. My first book for young readers came out with a very small publisher in 1994. Since then, there have been many ups and downs. Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember will be my fifty-seventh book for young readers.
Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember grew out of a desire to remember the full history of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The impact of the September 11th attacks on Northern Virginia is often overlooked or added as a footnote in media coverage of that tragic day. Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember was written to provide the Northern Virginia perspective and to help young people honor all the lives lost during the 9/11 attacks.
Me: This is an incredible poetry picture book dealing with such a serious topic from the children’s point of view. What gave you the idea for this book?
Jacqueline: Though I recently moved to Long Island, New York, I lived and taught in Northern Virginia for twenty years after September 11, 2001. By 2008, I noticed that my students had very limited knowledge of 9/11. Most did not know that the Pentagon had been a target that day. It worried me. I feel it is important to recognize how history influences present day society. And as someone who personally experienced this event in a city deeply affected by it, I felt a very direct connection to the topic.
Me: Were all these poems based on real people? Or were these poems more works of fiction? Was there research involved with this story?
Jacqueline: The poems in Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember are composites of my own experiences and those of friends, family, and students. Residents of Northern Virginia discussed what they were doing on September 11th for months afterward. So I had many stories in my head to augment my own personal memories. I shared drafts of the manuscript with Northern Virginia friends who provided their own perspectives of that day. In addition, I watched a documentary on the Pentagon attack and read every newspaper article or book pertaining to the Washington, DC experience I could find.
Me: It has been 22 years since 9/11. Why tell this story for today’s children who don’t know anything about it? Why was it important to you to share this with them?
Jacqueline: Today’s children are too young to remember that airport security used to be entirely different. They are too young to remember the courage and sacrifice of first responders on September 11th.
I have always appreciated the lessons of history. I think knowing what people endured in earlier time periods can offer comfort when new challenges arise in society.
In one of the poems, fourteen-year-old Tyra watches repairs to the Pentagon from her school bus each day. She says, “Seeing that building reborn/ bit by bit, helps me believe/that one day I won’t feel/so broken, either.”
As a country, as Americans, we survived the 9/11 terrorist attacks and rebuilt. I think that learning this history can be a lesson in community resilience for young readers.
Me: The illustrations by Eszter Anna Racz are incredible. The textures and torn paper are so fitting on every page. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorites?
Jacqueline: I adore the book jacket of Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember. The picture of a firefighter’s downcast face is so moving. The color palette evokes the mood of the book beautifully.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Jacqueline: I started writing this book in the summer of 2019. I knew I had a lot of memories from that time, but I was a little surprised by how vivid my recollections were 18 years later and how easily they flowed into the poems. While I rewrote this book numerous times before it was polished enough for publication, my initial draft was much easier than most of my books. Usually, the writing of my first drafts is excruciatingly slow. That was not the case for Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember.
Me: What advice for other aspiring picture book writers or poets would you give?
Jacqueline: Don’t be afraid to rewrite. Don’t be afraid to start over from scratch. A good number of my first drafts bear little resemblance to the final product. Good rewriting is only rewriting.
On my website, I have a resource called “Writing for Kids! Q & A.” This downloadable sheet answers many basic questions on how to get started and where to find more information on the children’s publishing business.
Thank you for stopping by my blog today Jacqueline.
Dear readers, this book comes out next week on September 19th. It’s an incredibly moving poetic portrait of children in Virginia during 9/11. I was deeply moved by it. It’s definitely worth a read.