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'This Very Tree' looks at how one tree survived 9/11 — and shows kids resilience


Today marks 21 years since the 9/11 attacks. More than two decades on, many of us are still living with disturbing memories from a day that changed life in this country and around the world in profound ways. But for those who were too young to remember or born in the years since then, 9/11 may not have the same resonance or meaning. And so, as with other painful moments in history, the dilemma is how to help young children learn about and understand the importance of the day without exposing them to traumatic images. Author Sean Rubin wrote and illustrated the book "This Very Tree" to do just that. The book's central character is the survivor tree. That's a pear tree that was planted at the base of the Twin Towers in the 1970s that stands tall in New York City's Freedom Plaza once again. And Sean Rubin is with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SEAN RUBIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, just tell us more about the tree. And of course, all trees are wonderful. But this tree had a very powerful story behind it, which you are telling. Just as briefly as you can, what happened to it?

RUBIN: This is a Callery pear tree - or some people know them as Bradford pear trees. And it was planted in the plaza underneath the World Trade Center. And when the towers fell in 2001, they came down on top of it. And it was the last living thing to be pulled from the rubble in October 2001. And the people that found it didn't know if it would survive. So it was sent up to a nursery in the Bronx, and it was nursed back to health. And it was decided that it would be moved back to the memorial. And it's become a sort of gathering place and really is a symbol for resilience following 9/11.

MARTIN: And in your book, the tree is the narrator. It is a witness. I mean, it's a witness to the growth of the city. It's a witness to the development of the World Trade Center. And it's a witness to, obviously, what happened next. But it also has important jobs. It sounds like a New Yorker. It has important jobs like providing shade for people and resting spots for birds. I just want to read a little bit of it, if I may.

RUBIN: Sure.

MARTIN: And it says, (reading) anyone who felt a shadow overhead could stand under my leaves and find peace. Anyone who was hurt could see how my branches had healed and find hope. In my plaza filled with so many trees, I am still the first to blossom.

There's so many beautiful thoughts contained in that, which, I mean, honestly, even as an adult, I find very moving. It's about resilience and renewal, but it contains so many thoughts, like, in the aftermath of something so terrible.

RUBIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I was just wondering how you arrived at that kind of - what can I say? - nuance about what would be needed and what would be helpful.

RUBIN: I'm not a mental health professional, but my wife is. She's a clinical psychologist. And I went to her as I was working on this project. And, you know, I asked her, if we could imagine what the tree would be thinking - like, almost as though the tree had come into her practice as a patient. You know, we would put the tree on the couch, and what would the tree say? What would you say to the tree? And she said, well, you know, the tree - it would have a sense of purpose. And then after the trauma, it would feel like it lost its sense of purpose, and it would have to regain that purpose back - or a new purpose, rather. Things that the tree liked, you know, before could become triggers - remind it of what had happened - noises, smells, sounds like, you know, like the plane and the machines. And I just kind of thought about that and said, you know, it was really important that the tree - if it was brought back to health, it would really have to be through the process of community. So the idea of the tree kind of relying on the presence of other trees to feel safe became a really important part.

MARTIN: You know, you point out that there was a tragedy without getting into too many of the specifics. I have to be honest with you. I was in New York on 9/11. I still - even for me, as an adult, looking at some of the pictures and looking at the kind of imagery of the tree being so kind of burnt up...

RUBIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Was upsetting to me. So how did you decide, like, how much to actually show? 'Cause, I mean - do you know what I mean? How do you decide kind of where to draw the line in imagery about something that is painful? I mean, thankfully it's not bloody and things of that sort. But how do you, as a - both as a writer and as a illustrator draw a line on sort of the tone and feeling of something?

RUBIN: I think it was important that the tree was really just aware of its immediate environment. And so that limited, I think, in a good way what we would actually have the tree talking about or what we would sort of see around the tree. You could only zoom out so much, so to speak. And so that kind of put a constraint on the perspective of the illustrations in the book. And in terms of how to depict the actual events of the day without it being, like, too jarring, I struggled with that quite a lot. The one illustration that actually sort of shows the - you know, it implies the collapse of the towers, I think is probably the most accurate way of saying it. It was the last illustration I submitted. And when I sent it to my editor, I asked for it back, like, a day later. I guess I said it was making me uncomfortable. And he said, it's supposed to. Like, you know, you're maybe used to making illustrations that are, you know, pleasant to look at, and this one can't be.

And so it made sense that there was, you know, this image that, you know, even bothered me. In some senses, I think it was a sign that it was working. It was doing what was supposed to. So what I tried to do with that was create images that were really just snippets to sort of show almost iconic images, I think, that we could remember, in many cases from television. And then when the tree is actually buried, I think I purposely chose to do it in a - more of an abstract way. So the sort of - the twisted metal - it doesn't look totally realistic because, of course, you know, I don't quite know what it is like to be in a situation like that. And all these things sort of put together, it creates sort of an emotional sense, I hope, without necessarily being explicit.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask - you were, I believe, a - you were born and raised in New York. You were a teenager during 9/11. Do you mind if I ask, like, what do you remember?

RUBIN: My family was living on Long Island at the time. We had moved there a few years prior from Brooklyn, where I grew up. And, you know, I think we still had an antenna for our television reception. So when the - tower two fell, with the radio and TV antenna, the signal cut, which was quite startling. I mean, I don't - you wouldn't ever see anything like that happen other than maybe in a movie. And I think that's what a lot of - it felt like to a lot of people is this just total sense of, you know, surrealism. How is what we're seeing on the TV even possible?

You know, I remember my cousin Stephen Addeo, to whom the book is dedicated, was actually the site safety inspector for what was referred to as the Pile, making sure that more people didn't get hurt in the process of trying to do the recovery. And so I remember him being around and just being very ashen faced, I think is one way to put it, at family gatherings. It was something that I think even on Long Island - you know, we were 30 miles away, but the center of gravity was definitely lower in Manhattan than what was going on in the city. And, you know, I think for many of us, it was unclear if we were ever going to feel differently about anything ever again.

MARTIN: Well, you dedicate this book both to your family member and to those who perished on that day. How do you feel about, now, what you've produced? I mean, I feel like - obviously, it's a beautiful book on its own. But, I don't know, how do you feel about it? It's - in a way, it's kind of an offering to them. Or how would you describe it?

RUBIN: I think that there's a sort of - there's a sense 'cause there's sort of two layers to the tragedy. There's the personal, immediate, local tragedy that happened in New York, that happened in Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania. And then there is everything that happened afterwards. And I think that also kind of makes it difficult to talk to kids about because, you know, you may not want to get into the political context. Certainly, the tree doesn't have any political context. The tree knows what city it lives in, but it doesn't understand geopolitics. But what I wasn't expecting was that the book kind of opened up a space for people to discuss their personal recollections of the tragedy and to root it back in that local, immediate area. And, you know, I think that's really important. I think that, in some ways, our difficulty discussing 9/11, because of everything that has happened following, is almost like a secondary tragedy. And, you know, it's - we should be able to discuss history, especially recent history and especially to kids. So I've been incredibly pleased to discover that this is the opportunity that this book is creating.

MARTIN: That was author Sean Rubin. He's the writer and illustrator of "This Very Tree." That's a children's book focusing on the attacks of September 11, 2001. Sean Rubin, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for this lovely book.

RUBIN: Thank you so much, and thank you for having me.


Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.