Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember
On September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. One hundred eighty-four innocent people were killed. The event was part of a coordinated terrorist attack against the United States involving four hijacked flights.
In Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember, author Jacqueline Jules, who was a school librarian in Arlington, Virginia on 9/11, tells the story of that traumatic day through a tapestry of poems written from the point of view of children who were affected.
There’s Kelvin, Age 5, whose class is on the playground when they see a big scary cloud and smell smoke. Everybody leaves school early, and no one explains why.
Delia, Age 17, who is home from school after having her wisdom teeth pulled. Her house starts shaking, and a vase crashes to the floor. When she turns on the TV and sees the news, her head aches worse than her jaw.
Josselyn, Age 14, shops with her family for canned goods. The grocery store is crowded, but everyone is silent.
Cyrus, Age 10, waiting for his fire-fighter father to come home.
Karima, Age 13, whose Muslim family keeps her home from school because they worry that “some people think we’re not American enough.”
Leo, Age 15, was at the doctor’s office that morning. His mother came with him, which was why she wasn’t at her office at the Pentagon.
Ruben, Age 10, whose neighbor did go to work, but never came home.
Michael, Age 8, whose brother went to fight in Afghanistan and promised to come home safely. He broke that promise.
These poignant stories, told in sparse, impactful verse, give voice to the fears and worries of children on that fateful day. I found these poems to be moving and powerful, reminding us of the vulnerability of children, who did not understand what was happening.
Julie: Thank you for joining me on the GROG Blog to talk about Smoke at the Pentagon. I’m curious about what you, personally, experienced that day. Where were you when you learned the Pentagon had been attacked?
Jacqueline: On the morning of the attack, I was in Washington, DC. People gathered around the nearest television, like they did all over the country. One woman began screaming that the Capitol Building would be next, and we were in immediate danger. I didn’t feel the same panic. I just felt numb. On my way home to Northern Virginia, I was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Turning on the radio, an ominous voice promised details of the “Attack on America.” When I finally arrived home, I was greeted by my teenage son, surrounded by a group of friends watching television and discussing the terrible news. Later that day, my husband and I went grocery shopping and were struck by how crowded, yet silent, the store was.
Julie: You say these poems are composites drawn from the experiences of students and friends living in Arlington at the time of the attack. Can you explain more about that process?
Jacqueline: Smoke at the Pentagon:
Poems to Remember recalls a history I personally lived. Some of the poems were woven
from my own memories of grocery shopping and of seeing my son and his teenage
friends processing the painful news. At school, a little boy whispered in my
ear that the Pentagon was broken. I will never forget how he cupped his hands
over my ear with an urgent desire to share what he knew. I used this experience
in the poem, “Calista, Age 16.”
The detail mentioned in the poem, “Delia, Age 17,” of the house shaking and a vase falling from a shelf came from a friend who lived near the Pentagon and was home the morning of the crash.
Where you were and what you were doing on September 11th was a repeated topic of conversation well into 2002, as people shared their stories. Though I didn’t begin to write the book until 2019, my own memories and conversations remain vivid.
Julie: When and why did you decide to write this book?
Jacqueline: In 2008, during a conversation with a group of sixth graders, I learned that my students had no knowledge that the Pentagon had been attacked on 9/11. I thought of this often as the years passed. Would future generations of students remain unaware of what happened in Arlington on 9/11? I discussed this with an author friend in June of 2019. She suggested that I write a book giving voice to the Northern Virginia experience. I began work a few days later.
Julie: What were some of your concerns and considerations in writing about this topic?
Jacqueline: As I discuss in the author’s introduction, I did have concerns about exposing young people to this painful day in American history. I didn’t want to arouse fear or animosity. But I also feel strongly that September 11, 2001, is not a day we should forget. Understanding the past can lead us to a better future. It can also show us that we are resilient, and when bad things happen, we can rebuild.
Julie: Tell us about your publisher. How long did the publishing process take?
Jacqueline: Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember is my first book with Bushel & Peck. I pitched the manuscript to the editor about six months before a contract came in early 2022. I was delighted to see the book ready for a fall 2023 publication. This gives Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember an opportunity to find its way to library shelves, classrooms, and reading lists well before the 25th anniversary of September 11th in 2026.
Julie: What other thoughts would you like to leave with readers of the GROG Blog?
Jacqueline: On my website and the publisher’s website, you can find a four page Teacher’s Guide for Smoke at the Pentagon: Poems to Remember.
One of the teaching ideas suggests performing the poems as Reader’s Theater. I hope teachers will encourage students to choose a poem to read aloud and act out. By performing Smoke at the Pentagon, I hope students will feel a personal connection to what young people experienced on September 11, 2001, and understand how this event impacted the history of America.
Jacqueline Jules is the award-winning author of over fifty books for young readers including the Zapato Power series, the Sofia Martinez series, My Name is Hamburger, Duck for Turkey Day, Feathers for Peacock, Never Say a Mean Word Again, and The Porridge-Pot Goblin. Visit her website at www.jacquelinejules.com
Congratulations on this timely book, Jacqueline, and thank you for sharing with the GROG blog.