Archive for the ‘9/11’ Category

I’m not a big fan of musical theater and I’ve never actually seen West Side Story, but I caught a glimpse of the film version last month on PBS. And that song just came to mind because today when I was signing books at the BPL, a young woman wearing the hijab came up to me and said, “I really loved this book because everything that Hakeem feels is just what I feel, too! Because he’s Muslim and so am I.” I told her how much that meant to me, but I’m not sure I was able to fully convey my meaning and there was a long line of kids behind her waiting to have their books signed. I won’t start gushing about the Brooklyn Public Library, but this is yet another program that serves the kids in my community—50 kids got a copy of Ship of Souls, and then they came in to hear my author talk and have their books signed. And they were SO ready to talk about the book! I started off with Bird and they kept finding connections to Ship of Souls. There were dozens of hands up in the air by the time I finished my talk, but we only had time for three or four questions. The teachers told me that the entire sixth grade had read the book, and I’ll be going to their school next month to meet everyone else. There’s nothing like seeing kids excited about reading! And, of course, one girl raised her hand and asked, “Will you write a book about us?” I told her that I wrote about Brooklyn and my own neighborhood so that kids like her would see themselves on the page. And half a dozen boys asked when the book will be made into a film. I told them that I had sent the book to Spike Lee (no response so far) and assured them that Nyla’s book was underway…


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Ten years ago I was in Athens, OH. I won a dissertation fellowship at Ohio University, and had moved there about a week before 9/11. On that sunny morning I had gone for a run and when I returned to my campus apartment, my sister called from Toronto and frantically told me to turn on the TV. As I watched footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers she kept saying, “It’s over! It’s over! You don’t understand—they’ve already fallen.” I finally hung up and tried to grasp what was happening—what had already happened—in the beloved city I had chosen as my home. I remember feeling very isolated in the weeks following 9/11; I wasn’t teaching, I wasn’t taking classes. I spent most of my days alone in my apartment—writing. Not my dissertation (on depictions of racial violence). I reread The Little Prince and immersed myself in stories for children. By November I was able to write this story, which has been rejected over and over by editors and won’t likely be published now. I think maybe today’s the right day to post it here on the blog.

 The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun

©  2001 by Zetta Elliott

To most people, Zoe looked like an ordinary little girl. She had dark brown eyes, and warm brown skin, and square white teeth with a gap in between.

Zoe had two quick hands that loved to clap, or bounce a ball, or turn a jump rope. She had two rather short but very strong legs that loved to run, and skip, and push the pedals of her bicycle as she rode down the block.

On the outside, Zoe looked just like an ordinary little girl—but she was special inside.

On cloudy days, Zoe and her father played a game. Daddy would stand by the window and look up at the sky. “I wonder where the sun is,” he would say before casting a sly glance at Zoe.

Zoe put both hands over her mouth to keep the giggles inside.

“Zoe,” Daddy would say as he peered into her laughing face, “did you swallow the sun?”

Zoe always shook her head, but Daddy never believed her.

“Are you sure, Zoe? I can see the sun peeking out from behind your brown eyes, and there are sunbeams coming out of your mouth. Your ears are glowing, and your belly is warm—I think you swallowed the sun!”

And Daddy would tickle Zoe all over until she cried out—“I did, Daddy! I did it! I swallowed the sun!”

Then her father would pick Zoe up and hold her while she put the sun back in the sky. Afterwards he would squeeze her tight. “You’re my sunshine, and I love you,” Daddy would always say.

And Zoe would hug her father back and whisper in his ear, “I love you, too, Daddy.”

Monday was a cloudy day, so Zoe and her father played their special game. Tuesday was a sunny day. Zoe waved goodbye from the window as her father left for work. Then she ate her breakfast, took her mother’s hand, and headed off to school.

Tuesday seemed like an ordinary day, but it wasn’t. Something terrible happened that day.

Zoe knew something was wrong when Nana picked her up at school instead of Mama. Nana came before recess, took Zoe’s hand, and walked home quickly without saying a word. Mama wasn’t waiting for them when they got home.

Nana told Zoe she could play with her toys all afternoon, but Zoe didn’t feel like playing. Nana held the phone in her lap and sat in front of the television whispering, SweetJesus SweetJesus SweetJesus over and over again.

Zoe stood by the window and waited for her parents to come home. Mama came home late that night, after Zoe had fallen asleep. But Daddy didn’t come with her.

When Zoe woke up the next morning, Daddy still wasn’t there. At breakfast Nana told her that school had been cancelled.

“You can play all day,” said Nana with a strange, upside down smile.

But Zoe didn’t feel like playing. She knew that something was wrong.

Zoe went out into the backyard and looked up at the sky. She waited for an airplane to glide overhead, but the sky was empty and silently blue. The wind blew gently, but the air burned the inside of her nose, and a bitter taste settled on her tongue.

Zoe knew that something terrible had happened. Even the birds seemed afraid to fly. The sun was still shining high above her, but Zoe felt cold inside.

Zoe stood alone with her shadow and wondered what she should do. Mama was in the kitchen, staring at the phone. Nana was still whispering in front of the TV. Zoe thought about her Daddy, and how much she missed him, and suddenly she knew just what she needed to do.

Zoe pulled herself up on the tips of her toes and threw back her head. She opened her mouth as wide as she could, and then Zoe—swallowed—the sun.

“I’ll put it back when Daddy comes home,” Zoe promised. Nobody heard her but the wind.

Soon it was time to go back to school. Zoe took her Nana’s hand and headed down the street. Nana looked up at the pale, cloudy sky. “I wish the sun would come out,” she said.

Zoe smiled a tiny, secret smile.

On the outside, she looked like an ordinary little girl. But on the inside, Zoe felt warm and full of light. No one seemed to notice that she had swallowed the sun.

Things had changed in Zoe’s neighborhood since that terrible day. There were flags everywhere—even more than on the 4th of July. But there weren’t any fireworks, and instead of celebrating, everyone seemed sad…or angry.

At school, some of Zoe’s classmates were absent. Zoe sat alone at her desk and wondered what had happened to the quiet girl, Aaliyah, who always wore a pretty pink scarf over her head.

After lunch, Zoe’s teacher taught the class a new poem called “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Each morning Zoe stood up and faced the flag with one hand held over her heart.

As she read the words written across the blackboard, Zoe felt her heart beating inside her chest. She missed her Daddy more and more, but the sun inside of Zoe kept her heart warm and full of hope.

When Zoe got home from school that day, she found her mother standing by the window. “Hi, Mama,” said Zoe as she hung up her coat. “Is Daddy home yet?”

Mama quietly shook her head and kept on looking at the sky.

Zoe crept up close to her mother. “What are you looking at, Mama?” she asked.

Mama laid her hand gently on Zoe’s head. “Nothing, baby,” she said.  “Just a hole in the sky.”

Zoe put both arms around her mother and held on tight.

“Nothing will ever be the same again,” she heard her mother whisper. Zoe wondered if Mama knew that she had swallowed the sun.

More days passed.

One morning Zoe woke up and looked outside her window. It was another cloudy day. Zoe lay in bed and wondered when her Daddy was coming home. She was tired of looking at the dull gray sky, and she longed to tell someone about the secret she was carrying inside. But who would believe her besides Daddy?

Zoe knew she looked like an ordinary little girl on the outside. But she no longer felt like doing ordinary things. Her hands didn’t want to bounce a ball, or turn a jump rope, and her legs no longer liked to run, or push the pedals of her bike.

Plus something was happening inside of her. Some days the sun inside Zoe burned warm and bright. On those days Zoe used the golden sunbeams to chase away the shadows that kept creeping into her heart.

But on other days, the sun inside Zoe turned cold and dim. It weighed inside of her like a big heavy stone. On those days Zoe didn’t have much room for food, and it took her a lot longer to walk home from school.

One day, after picking Zoe up from school, Mama suggested they stop at the playground before heading home.

Zoe looked up at her mother and smiled. They hadn’t been to the playground since that terrible day. Zoe squeezed her mother’s hand and felt a little bit lighter inside.

At the playground, Zoe went straight to the monkey bars and began to climb. When she reached the top, Zoe waved to her mother. “Look at me, Mama! Look at me!”

But Mama wasn’t looking. She was staring up at the hole in the sky.

Zoe tried again.  “Look at me, Mama. Please?” begged Zoe.

But Mama just wrapped herself up in her arms and kept staring at the sky.

Zoe felt the sun inside of her grow heavy once again. As she climbed down from the monkey bars, Zoe lost her balance and fell onto the pavement.

Mama rushed over to her right away. “Baby, are you okay?”

Zoe had scraped both of her palms, and there was a cut on her knee.

Even though it hurt, Zoe didn’t cry. She couldn’t. The sun inside of Zoe had changed again. Now it felt like a little ball of fire stuck at the back of her throat. “I want to go home,” was all that Zoe could say.

As soon as they got home, Mama cleaned and bandaged Zoe’s cuts.

She kissed Zoe on the forehead and said, “There. All better?”

Zoe wanted to nod, but she didn’t feel better at all.

Zoe pressed her lips together. Her secret was almost ready to come out. “Mama, when is Daddy coming home?” asked Zoe.

Mama looked at her for a moment and didn’t say a word. Zoe could see the tears shining in her mother’s eyes. Finally, Mama sat down in a chair and pulled Zoe onto her lap.

In a soft, steady voice, Mama talked about that terrible day. She told Zoe about the thousands of people who had lost their lives. Mama told Zoe that Daddy was one of those people.

Losing Daddy hurt much more than falling off the monkey bars. And this time, when Zoe wanted to cry, the sun inside of her didn’t get in the way.

Zoe cried, and cried, and cried. Hot sizzling tears fell from her eyes as Mama held Zoe in her arms and rocked her back and forth.

After a long while, Zoe’s tears began to cool and they fell more slowly than before. When she was ready, Zoe told Mama the secret she had been carrying around inside.

“Is that where the sun has been hiding all this time?” asked Mama.

Zoe nodded quietly. Then she said, “Mama, will you help me put the sun back up in the sky?”

Mama took Zoe’s hand, and together they went out into the backyard. Mama picked Zoe up and held her close to the sky.

Zoe opened her mouth but nothing happened.

Then she remembered what her Daddy used to say whenever they played their special game.

Zoe tried again.

“You’re my sunshine, and I’ll always love you, Daddy,” said Zoe.

Then Zoe opened her heart and put the sun back in the sky where it belonged.

Without the sun to fill her up, Zoe felt kind of empty inside. But Mama squeezed her tight.

“We’ll always remember how much Daddy loved us, and what a special person he was,” Mama said. “And don’t ever forget, Zoe, that I love you, too, and you can always tell me what you’re feeling inside.”

“Will things get better now that the sun is back up in the sky?” asked Zoe.

“It’s going to take some time,” said Mama, “but I think everything’s going to be alright.”

Zoe and her mother hugged one another and the golden sunrays wrapped them in a warm embrace.

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