Canandaigua school community-reads selection is about a boy turning 11 on 9/11
CANANDAIGUA — Every American alive on Sept. 11, 2001 — with the exception of small children — remembers where they were and what they were doing when terrorists smashed planes into the World Trade Center, toppling its twin towers.
Rebecca Kraft, a Canandaigua Middle School teacher, was in eighth grade in Fairport.
“They did not tell us anything in school about what was happening,” she told a packed auditorium last week, filled with the entire sixth-grade class, to hear from the author of a book related to 9/11. “But, at the time, I was a diver for the high school team, so one of my friends and I went up to practice. We did not know it had been cancelled.”
She said the coaches and captains sat them down to tell them about the terrorist events unfolding in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
“And then we waited for my friend's mom to pick us up and went home and just watched the news with our families the rest of the day,” Kraft said.
“See how much detail Ms. Kraft remembers,” Tom Rogers, author of “Eleven,” said, speaking live from California to students from a giant screen in front of the auditorium, via Google Hangouts.
The day is also vivid in Rogers' mind, but he realized that wasn't true for young people when his nephew Matthew came to him several years ago around the time of the anniversary and, noticing extensive media coverage, asked “What's the big deal about 9/11?”,
That's when it hit Rogers. Matthew was only 2 at the time, so he had no memory of that terrible day that so many Americans can never forget.
In fact, what few kids in school today were alive were still in diapers, while most had not yet even been born.
Rogers got thinking about his own childhood and wondered what it would be like to be a kid living near new New York City that beautiful Tuesday morning when the tranquility of clear blue skies were shattered with terror, forever changing the course of American lives.
Thus was born “Eleven,” a book about a boy named Alex who turns 11 on Sept. 11, 2001.
The book, after a lengthy review process involving several selections, was picked by teachers, staff and administrations to revive a community-reads program in the Canandaigua City School District.
“It was one of the top books, and everyone was in agreement we wanted a book that was powerful and tied into our character traits that was accessible to a wide variety of students,” said Kraft. “One of the other things we really thought about is, we didn't want a book that was going to overwhelm kids. We wanted to reach those kids that didn't like to read.”
Katie Michalko, a middle school English teacher, emailed the author, whom Kraft said was more then generous and willing to help out.
Rogers, who has worked for The Walt Disney Co. for almost 20 years, talked about how he became a writer; his fondness for the character Elena of Avalor, featured in a Disney Channel series of the same name; and the creation of “Eleven.”
The whole audience laughed out loud when Rogers said he was a dorky 11-year-old and showed them a photo of himself at that age, wearing a huge bright yellow bow tie, noting his mother still has a big framed copy in the front hallway of her home.
“I was rocking that gigantic yellow bow tie,” Rogers joked, immediately bonding with his young audience. “This picture has haunted me since I was 11. I can't stand it. My mother, of course, it's her favorite picture.”
Much like Alex, the lead character in the book, Rogers said he also used to daydream about being a hero, running into a burning building to save all the pretty girls so they would like him.
He loved science and thought he would grow up to be an astrophysicist, but inspiration from his teachers put him on a different path, getting him excited about literature, reading and writing — interests that continued to flourish at Harvard University, where he majored in literature and history.
Rogers talked about the difficulties of writing and how much he hated rewrites until he learned to compare them to a sports coach helping improve technique and performance.
“If a batting coach came in and said 'Here's what you need to do; choke down the bat, put your elbow up, lighten your stance, eye on the ball,' and all of a sudden, you start hitting doubles and triples and home runs, you would be thrilled to get that advice from that coach,” Rogers said. “You wouldn't feel like he's attacking you, telling you everything you did wrong. When you make that kind of a mental flip with your writing, you'll learn to enjoy your re-writing. So, when you get comments on your first draft, think of those as suggestions for how to start hitting home runs with your writing.”
He said his editor pretty much hated the first five or six lines of “Eleven,” found two sentences on the first page she liked and crossed out the entire second half of the page, doing that throughout his manuscript, but he said he eventually realized she was “mostly right,” and together they reduced the first draft from 280 to 190 pages.
“One of the things I definitely wanted to convey was to get the facts right and to tell you guys how shocking — how shocking — and how stunning these events were because in the course of just a couple of hours on the morning of 9/11, those two towers were reduced (to rubbish),” Rogers said.
But, there was also another story he wanted to tell — how people came together that day, from all walks of life, to help one another, showing incredible courage and kindness.
Rogers even weaves some mystery into his story as Alex wonders if he will ever again see his father, who works at the World Trade Center. Another character, Mac, wonders the same thing about his son, who is the same age at Alex's father. And there is a mysterious man in a white shirt who escaped from one of the towers. The story follows his journey, as well, as readers try to figure out his identify which, when revealed, brings relief and joy to one family and tremendous loss to another.
“Both of those stories happened thousands of times that day,” Rogers said. “Some of those people coming back over the bridge, every one of them has a similar story to tell.”
Samantha Haygood, one of the students, asked Rogers about his favorite characters. He said it was Alex, partially because he is semi-autobiographical.
Alex Rheude asked what Rogers might like to tell his younger self if he could.
“The first is don't worry so much about what other people think,” the author answered. “Don't limit yourselves by external forces. Find what you love and go after it.”
Other students asking questions were Lyllian McMillan, Liv Boyd, Emerson Broomfield and Jack Tilley, as well as Principal John Arthur.
Seventh and eighth-graders also saw the presentation on separate days leading up to Rogers' visit with the sixth-graders.
About the author
Tom Rogers is a novelist and screenwriter of numerous animated films, including Disney's "The Lion King 1½," "Kronk's New Groove," "Tinker Bell: Secret of the Wings" and the upcoming "Legend of the Neverbeast."
He is most recently the author of "Eleven," a middle-grades novel that tells the story of a boy turning 11 on 9/11.
Originally from Texas, Rogers graduated from Harvard University with a degree in history and literature. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and tango partner, Jennifer.
About the book
Background: It may seem hard to believe, but children in middle school today were born after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leaving parents and educators wondering how to teach them and future generations about 9/11 and what lessons they want to convey about that difficult time. "Eleven," by Tom Rogers, may help answer those questions.
Summary: "Eleven" tells the story of Alex Douglas, a boy turning 11 on 9/11. It's a coming-of-age novel about a kid who dreams of being a hero, the stray dog he rescues, his growing fear that his father was caught in the attacks, and the journey he must take over the course of a single day, as his birthday turns into a day forever remembered by history.