In middle school, nothing is more important than being popular. So when a tragedy so unimaginable happens, the drama of splitting time between two households seems senseless. In "Big Apple Diaries," Alyssa Bermudez uses a graphic memoir format to share how one girl tries to cope with life in New York City before and after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Big Apple Diaries" reveals two years of Alyssa's life, including what should be the best year ever, minus having to choose a high school, until a national tragedy makes her look at what is really important in her life.
We meet Alyssa, an aspiring shoe designer, as she begins seventh grade. Her diary entries are covered in drawings and charts. She has been attending St. Ignatius Catholic school since first grade, so most of her classmates are the same. Like any school, there's the popular group, the nerdy group, and the ones who just don't fit anywhere. That's Alyssa. She likes to draw, especially shoes, plays the saxophone and has very strict divorced parents.
Alyssa has all the typical troubles of the average middle-schooler. She tries to tame her unibrow with a razor and basically loses her eyebrows; her crush on Alejandro, an ambassador' son, is made public in a big way; and her grades are tanking. Her over-protective parents make life miserable — only allowing her to be on social media 30 minutes a day. Her dad lives in Manhattan, works in the World Trade Center, loves bicycles and was born in Puerto Rico. Her mom, a true New Yorker, lives in Queens and works downtown too. Alyssa's biggest joy is shoes, whether drawing new over-the-top designs or buying ones that push the no-wedge dress code at school. However, none of her friends enjoy the drawing side of this passion. Life as a tween is full of responsibilities. She will have to take huge tests to get accepted into the high school of her choice. Grades are super important but not easy. Alyssa finds herself in trouble, and all her time goes to fixing and improving her grades. This just adds on more stress. Sometimes, she doesn't know what to do or how to handle it.
After a great summer in Europe, Alyssa is ready for her final year at St. Ignatius. Becoming a teenager will mean more freedom, and life is going to be fantastic. Then, six days into eighth grade, the whole class is called to an unexpected assembly. There, they are informed two planes have struck the Twin Towers. They are told all students will be sent home immediately, but they must be picked up by a parent or guardian. She becomes the last remaining student. Then, she learns her parents are alive but can't get out of the city. This is the beginning of drastic changes — in her life, the city and even the nation. As life tries to get back to some type of normalcy, Alyssa finds new joy and understanding in her drawing and a renewed desire to find out who she is. From choosing a high school that offers multiple art classes to accepting her dad's new girlfriend, she finds ways to become the person she wants to be and not just who others want her to be.
"Big Apple Diaries" is a remarkable compilation of Alyssa Bermudez's childhood diaries, memories and stories from childhood friends. I, for one, am thankful she didn't become a shoe designer and instead became an illustrator and author. This book hits all the right feels as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and a whole new generation of young people experience the tragedy and the changes this day brought.
Donna Loehner is a children's programming associate at the Missouri River Regional Library.