For those born prior to September 11, 2001 and old enough to remember, the day will never be forgotten. Everyone remembers where they were, who they were with and what they were doing on the morning of that September day. The attacks and everything tied to them, then and now, are part of the larger American consciousness.
In this year of the fifteenth anniversary, several fiction titles have been released. Of those I have, to date, read two, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story (Atheneum Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, June 28, 2016) written by Nora Raleigh Baskin and The Memory of Things (St. Martin's Griffin, September 6, 2016) by Gae Polisner. Seven and a half Tons of Steel (Peachtree Publishers, August 1, 2016) written by Janet Nolan with illustrations by Thomas Gonzalez is a nonfiction picture book. This exceptional story tells how from devastation something new and strong was built.
THERE IS A SHIP, a navy ship. It is called the USS New York. It is big like other navy ships, and it sails like other navy ships, but there is something different, something special about the USS New York.
This ship has something no other vessel ever made has or will ever have. When the World Trade Center twin towers fell an enormous area of destruction resulted. This area named Ground Zero was the site of a massive removal of metal, concrete, and stone. One large steel beam was taken from New York City to the state of Louisiana.
In Louisiana it was heated in a foundry until as a liquid it was poured into a mold. This shape was so enormous you won't believe how many days it took for it to cool. On the body of a ship the front portion is known as the bow. This newly formed steel was formed into a ship's bow. Skilled workers toiled until it was ready to be taken to a shipyard.
At the shipyard in New Orleans other highly trained builders worked to construct the USS New York. It was a momentous day when the ship was ready for the new bow. An American flag was placed on the piece of steel as it was fitted to the vessel. Before the USS New York could be completed Mother Nature intervened. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the homes of many of the workers.
Temporary housing, Kamp Katrina, allowed them to continue. On its maiden voyage the USS New York slowly glided over the waters of the New York Harbor pausing opposite the site where the World Trade Center twin towers had been. A twenty-one gun salute rang out. The seven and a half tons of steel which slices through the water first as this ship does its job is a reminder, bearing the motto Never Forget.
As you read each sentence and the paragraphs they compose, a true sense of the extraordinary, historic significance of this ship's bow envelopes you. Janet Nolan respectfully describes the events of September 11, 2001 but proceeds to place emphasis on the journey of the single beam of steel from the rubble to a place of honor on the ship's bow. Most page turns will reveal only two or three sentences at a time with the exception of the description of Hurricane Katrina and both arrivals of the ship in New York Harbor. Each verb, cleared, carried, heated, melted, worked, finished and sailed, selected conveys intention and purpose. As a whole it's a tribute to the fortitude of people, steely resolve fashioned with heart. Here is another sample passage.
Shipbuilders stopped their work and
came to watch. Draped in an American flag,
seven and a half tons of steel were lifted
by a crane and welded into place
on the USS New York.
Spanning from left edge to right edge, the matching image on the dust jacket and book case focuses on the majesty of the ship's bow cutting through the water with the expanse of the seascape on the right and the city skyline on the left. It's a breathtaking portrait, an intimate view. Thomas Gonzalez begins his visual interpretation of the story on the opening endpaper with the clear blue sky lighter on the left becoming darker as the background moves to the right. In the lower left-hand corner are the twin towers all alone. In the upper right-hand corner a plane flies to the left. A child, wearing a backpack and carrying books and a baseball mitt, looks up.
The next page turn reveals a stunning image of downtown New York City. Taxis line the street. In the rear window of them the plane is flying toward the tower. In a close-up of a car mirror in the lower half of the right side of the two-page illustration, the plane is a blur moving toward the tower. The title page is an expanse of blue with the nose of the plane striking the tower. On the closing endpaper a magnificent picture shows a portion of the hand holding the torch in the Statue of Liberty, large in the foreground on the left. Behind is the skyline of New York City with clouds of yellows and oranges on a darkened blue sky. In the lower right-hand corner the USS New York moves toward the statue. (Please notice that the flaps of the jacket mirror the endpapers beneath them.)
All the illustrations rendered in pastel, colored pencil, and watercolor on archival 100% rag watercolor paper by Gonzalez span two pages, each worthy of framing. For each picture he has selected an emotional focal point or specific portion of the text thus giving readers varying perspectives. For the 9/11 attacks the large billows of smoke radiant from the tower. On the next page we zoom in to Ground Zero. Stuffed animals, pictures, flowers and mementos fill the pages as a person bends over to light a candle. We are very close to the face and arm of this individual. At the foundry it's easy to imagine the noise and heat during the melting of the steel and the pouring of the liquid into the mold. These are very personal depictions replete with details.
One of my favorite of many illustrations is of the men and women returning to the shipyard after Hurricane Katrina to complete the building of the USS New York. The point of view is as if we are one of the workers. They are wearing appropriate attire carrying or wearing their hardhats. One person has raised a paper on a clipboard. They are placed on either side of the sign Kamp Katrina. This is a tribute to these people.
Even after several readings of Seven and a half Tons of Steel written by Janet Nolan with illustrations by Thomas Gonzalez the emotional impact amid historical facts remains. The research by the author and illustrator are evident in the included elements by each. At the close of the book are more facts about the USS New York and the crest of the USS New York. I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional bookshelves.
To learn more about Janet Nolan and Thomas Gonzalez please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Janet Nolan and Thomas Gonzalez are interviewed at the Peachtree Publishers blog. The publisher has also provided a teacher's guide. Janet Nolan is interviewed at PictureBookBuilders. An article in Publishers Weekly addresses this title. Author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson follows her review at BookPage with illustrations at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Here is a link to the ship's official website, the USS New York LPD-21. More information about the World Trade Center can be found at History.com. Here are links to news articles about the ship's journey during and after its completion, USS New York: A Ship Forged From Tragedy, USS New York made from World Trade Center steel sets sail for NYC, A Voyage Bearing a Memory and U.S.S. New York Reaches Manhattan. The following two videos are from the United States Navy. They contain some similar footage.
Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy a blog hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to enjoy the other titles selected by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.