88 pages 2 hours read

Alan Gratz

Ground Zero

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Ground Zero is a realistic fiction work for young readers by Alan Gratz about both September 11 and life in Afghanistan two decades later. The novel was published in early 2021 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. Gratz is the author of 17 novels for young readers, including many others that portray war and historical events. Ground Zero alternates between the perspectives of Brandon, a nine-year-old boy stuck in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and Reshmina, an 11-year-old girl living in Afghanistan in 2019. Although their stories are decades and worlds apart, their lives overlap in unexpected ways. This study guide refers to the 2021 edition published by Scholastic Press.

Plot Summary

Ground Zero alternates chapters between the storylines of Brandon and Reshmina. Brandon’s storyline takes place on September 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center. Reshmina’s storyline takes place on September 11, 2019, in a small village in Afghanistan.

Brandon Chavez is a nine-year-old boy who has been suspended from school for punching another student. His father, Leo, is disappointed in Brandon and thinks he deserved to be suspended. They go to Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, where Brandon’s dad is the kitchen manager. Brandon leaves the restaurant to go to the underground mall. While he is in the elevator, there is a loud crash, and the elevator gets stuck. Brandon escapes through a hole in the drywall. He learns that a plane hit the building and goes up the stairs to find his dad. He cannot get higher than the 89th floor, so he exits there and nearly falls to his death because the floor has been destroyed. He is rescued by a man, Richard, who becomes his partner in survival. They go up a different stairwell to the 93rd floor, but it is on fire and they have to stop.

Brandon calls his dad, who reassures him they will survive. A second plane flies into the South Tower, and Brandon’s dad urges Brandon to escape the building. Brandon travels lower with Richard and calls his dad again from the 20th floor. His dad tells Brandon he will not make it out and to live a good life. Brandon and Richard make it to the mezzanine, where there are many dead and wounded. They are directed to the basement, where the lights shut off and Brandon grabs a Tasmanian Devil stuffed animal. Outside, they see that the South Tower is gone and the North Tower is starting to fall, too. They run for their lives, then walk to Richard’s house, where they learn about the terrorist attacks of the day.

Reshmina is an 11-year-old Afghan girl who lives in a small, mountainous village. She is collecting firewood and playing with her twin brother, Pasoon, when an American soldier, Taz (Brandon as an adult), leads a search party through their village. The Taliban attack, and Taz is the only survivor. He asks Reshmina for help, and she leads him to her home. Pasoon is furious when he finds out and leaves to tell the Taliban that an American is in their house. Reshmina rushes up the mountains to find Pasoon, but he has already contacted the Taliban.

An American Apache helicopter appears, and a battle with the Taliban begins. Reshmina begs Pasoon to stay, and she nearly falls off a cliff. They meet a group of Kochi, a tribe of nomads, and reflect on their older sister Hila’s death, caused by an American drone on her wedding day. Pasoon shoots a rifle to get the Taliban’s attention. Reshmina tries again to stop him. They argue and wrestle, and Pasoon slaps Reshmina. She knows that he will not change his mind and goes home to warn everyone. They put Taz in a burqa, a body covering for women, and hide in the caves. The caves collapse, and Reshmina creates an escape hole with an old mine.

Taz tells her that it is September 11, but neither she nor anyone else knows what that means. He explains it, and they argue about why Americans are still in Afghanistan. Taz decides he wants to better help the Afghan people. Reshmina wants to continue her education.

In drawing parallels between Brandon and Reshmina, both as characters and in their decades-apart storylines, the novel shows how a single day can change a person forever, highlights the importance of working together to survive, and argues for mercy over revenge.