“You’ve got mail” is an understatement for me during the months of December and January. Each year, the post office delivers white plastic mail bins by the dozens filled with correspondence from children across the country. I am not the person to whom they are writing, but I and my staff members are the ones who read their very personal letters.
Dear Ben Mikaelsen,
A student pushed a 10-year-old boy off a school bus causing him to land face down on the ground, “just to be funny.” The bus driver drove away after asking only half-heartedly if the boy was “okay.” Imagine this same boy shoved into the corner of the school building while three students held him down, twisting and pinching his skin. … The principal dismissed the actions as “just boy’s horseplay.” The boy felt scared, hurt, and alone. I was that boy.
This paragraph was written by a middle school student in North Carolina. The letter is about Mikaelsen’s novel Petey. It is also about something else—bullying, yes, but also adult reactions to bullying incidents.
Letters About Literature invites children to write to an author, living or dead, whose work has somehow changed their view of the world or themselves. We encourage young readers to explore their personal response to the work and then express that response in a creative, original way. Do not summarize or critique, we advise. Rather, write from the heart. They do not disappoint.
Bullying, divorce, war—the letters touch upon serious subjects, but they are not grim. They are full of hope and discoveries of self-awareness and self-worth.
This is the 16th year that the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress has invited children to write a reflective letter to an author. Over those years, hundreds of thousands of children have responded. As the national director of this program, I see what the state and national judges do not: the minimal as well as the exceptional letters; the struggling as well as the polished readers and writers. I see something else, as well: a tapestry of themes, woven from New England to the South, to the Midwest and the West.
Two dominant themes on all three competition levels—upper-elementary, middle, and high school—are confronting peer pressure and bullying, and coping with loss—loss through the death of a parent, a friend, or a pet; loss through disease; or loss through a move from one school to another, from one city or state to another, and yes, even from one country to another.
Interestingly, not one book or one author is better than another for helping children understand these issues. Nor do two readers always have the same response to the same book or author. This year, Mike Lupica’s novel Travel Team triggered hundreds of letters from readers both male and female. The book, they told us, is not just about basketball. It’s about accepting the hard knocks life sends you. For Zachary in Arkansas, Travel Team helped him cope with his parents’ divorce. For middle school gymnast Ciara from Utah, the book inspired her to train harder. “I get discouraged a lot,” she wrote to Lupica. But Danny—the novel’s main character—inspired her with his “gritty attitude.”
Another theme that crosses grade levels and geography is war and humankind’s all-too-frequent acts of inhumanity. Ten years ago, children wrote to Elie Wiesel about his memoir Night, to Lois Lowry about her historical novel Number the Stars, and to Anne Frank about her posthumously published diary. The letters expressed sorrow and shock. Readers continue to write about these books, but with a slightly different angle of vision. This year, young readers linked the horrors of World War II with the current war on terrorism. In letters to Stephen Crane and Erich Maria Remarque, they expressed the understanding that war is not as they might have thought it to be—guts and glory, flag waving, and gun cocking. If their letters are any indication, many children are frightened. They fear for their brothers and sisters who are soldiering overseas. They fear for a world that seems to spin dangerously on the brink of destruction.
Bullying, divorce, war—the letters touch upon serious subjects, but they are not grim. They are full of hope and discoveries of self-awareness and self-worth. They show that young readers find strength in the characters they read about. Harry Potter and Harper Lee’s Scout are role models. But something else is happening, something far more important. As they read, these young people enter the lives of the characters. They empathize.
The British novelist Graham Greene called this leap from decoding information into comprehension “the dangerous moment.” Why dangerous? Because, he said, the reader realizes then that books not only are mirrors, but also passageways to possibility.
Unfortunately, not all children make this leap. But in the letters we receive each year, a great many do. And if books can shape a child’s future, then the future we are seeing in these letters is bright indeed. As Kelsey wrote to Jerry Spinelli, about his title character in Stargirl:
She plays the ukulele, has a pet rat, and sings to her classmates during lunch. … When I first envisioned Stargirl, I instantly jumped to the conclusion that I would never want to be like her. Then I began to look deeper than Stargirl’s untraditional exterior. I began to rethink everything.
Kelsey closes her letter by explaining how the book changed her view of herself and her world:
I wish I could have her attitude towards life. The amount of love and respect she has for herself is overwhelming. After finishing Stargirl, I walk down the hallway with my head up high and my backpack slung proudly over my shoulder. Now more than ever, I am truly pleased to be simply me, beautiful, and simply human, me.
Of course, not all letters are as eloquently expressed. Danielle from New York told Brian Jacques that his book seemed so real that “my eyes blew up.” Marshal, age 12, wrote to Walter Dean Myers: “Your book tossed my brain around like a shirt in the clothes dryer.” Jordan was so impressed with a book by C.S. Lewis that he wrote: “Your brain must be huge.”
Each year, I am impressed by the depth of meaning children get from the stories they read. We need not dumb down our literature. If what we write and publish has meaning, our children will extend their arms and reach for our words. More important, they’ll hold on to them.
Books are not the only venue that allows children to relate to others or to suggest a way of coping with a troubling situation. Music most certainly communicates as well. But reading a book is an investment of time and concentration. “I never thought I could read a book this big,” children tell us time and again.
For those who make the investment, the result can be empowering for them, and incredibly enlightening for us. These letters are windows to understanding this young generation—what the children think about, hope for, and fear. Recognizing that the youngest among them are just 9 and 10 years old makes what they write all the more remarkable.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as What Children Write to Authors