A local children’s book author and illustrator hopes his recent book about 9/11 will help educators and families have age-appropriate conversations with children about the events of that day.
Charlottesville resident Sean Rubin is the author and illustrator of “This Very Tree,” which that tells the story of the terrorist attacks from the perspective of a real Callery pear tree planted between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. The tree miraculously survived the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and was removed from the rubble and planted in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where it has flourished.
Rubin has illustrated several award-winning children’s books, including “The Passover Guest,” “The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon” and the Eisner Award-nominated Bolivar graphic novels. He was approached by an editor and asked if he’d be interested in writing a story for children about 9/11 from the perspective of the pear tree. Rubin was especially interested in the story because he was a child living in New York City on 9/11.
“It’s a really unique opportunity to tell the story of 9/11 in a way that a kid can understand. It was sort of tailor-made for children. Instead of talking about the experiences of what would happen to a person, you’re talking about how it happened to a tree, which kind of makes it safer or at least easier to talk about,” Rubin said.
Rubin said it was important to be honest about the events of 9/11 while also keeping the story appropriate and light enough for young children. He brought a lot of this through in the illustrations.
“I leaned a lot on visuals for the actual day of 9/11 … I show that buildings collapsed, that people were scared, but at no point is anything said about airplanes, for example,” Rubin said.
“The buildings look like they do in life. But when extreme things happen, like when the towers come down and the tree is buried, it’s more imaginative in the way it’s depicted. I think for me that was important because that whole experience seems so surreal when it was happening when I remember watching it on TV and being in New York,” he said.
Rubin said his childhood memories of Manhattan had a strong influence on the book, particularly the visuals.
“I really focused on using certain key colors. There’s a lot of visuals with dark and graphite or black that come in when scary things are happening. And then there’s a lot of green in the beginning and then the green goes away and that comes back. And I wanted to use very soft, almost pastel colors. I wanted the book to be as gentle as possible,” he said.
Rubin illustrated the people in the story to represent a wide range of backgrounds to reflect the diversity of New York City and the people impacted by 9/11.
Rubin also consulted his wife, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia who works with people who have experienced trauma, about how to properly convey the effects of trauma in an age-appropriate way. A lot of this came through in what the tree feels and experiences.
“I asked her, ‘If the tree was someone that came into your practice, what would you expect the tree to say? What would the recovery look like?’ And she walked me through that,” he said.
One of the big decisions they made to relay this was to give the tree the job of providing shade and refuge in the story.
“That was something that’s kind of good for kids to understand, the tree kind of had a purpose when it was down in lower Manhattan, and then it kind of had to find a different purpose when it came back. The tree was very concerned with its spot. And that’s kind of how we approached it. We thought of the tree as a person. How would a person react? And I tried to tell that story as simply as possible,” Rubin said.
Rubin’s goal is for the book to help families and educators open conversations with children about the events of 9/11.
“The book is sort of purposely light on context, partially because I thought that librarians, teachers, caregivers can decide what the kid they’re reading this to is ready for. There’s also zero politics in it, which was also very intentional in focusing on 9/11 as a personal and community tragedy,” Rubin said. “The hope is that this book creates an opportunity for adults and children to actually talk about this in a way that they may not have otherwise.”
While the story takes place in New York, Charlottesville makes an appearance in the book in a prominent but silent way.
Because Rubin was unable to travel back to New York City to look at the Callery pear trees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he ended up finding some of his source material locally.
“The Callery pear trees on Alderman [Road] became models for the survivor tree,” he said.
“There was storm damage to these trees, so they had injuries and they kind of recovered and it looked exactly like the photography of the survivor tree,” he said.
Rubin visited these trees and took photos that he used as source material for his illustrations.
While the book is written for children, Rubin said it really is a story for everyone and he hopes it will help people of all ages process and discuss their feelings about 9/11 without getting into political debate.
“If you can write for children, you can write for anyone,” Rubin said. “Because of the political context [of 9/11], people are often not comfortable talking about it, and the issue is that people have personal experiences and feelings that are independent of politics.”
“When I was a kid and I was experiencing this, I felt very much that 9/11 was a personal and community tragedy. It was something that happened to my community. It was something that happened to individuals and something that happened to families. And so I wanted to focus on it as being a personal story … and that might create an opportunity to talk about it without getting wrapped up in the politics.”
The book, published in May by MacMillan Publishers, is available at major retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.