Yesterday I read about a competition called Letters About Literature. For the competition young readers had "to write a personal letter of reflection to an author whose work somehow inspired them or changed their view of the world or themselves." I only wish I had had the opportunity to write such a letter when I was in school! This year 69,000 young readers from all over the U.S participated in the writing contest, which is a reading promotion program of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, presented in partnership with Target. The winners of the 2009-2010 competition wrote to (among others) Francisco Jimenez, who wrote "The Circuit," Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the Little House books, J.D.Salinger who wrote "The Catcher in the Rye," and Dr. Seuss, who wrote numerous books for readers of all ages.
Here is one of the winning letters, which was written by Reagan Nelson, a 6th grade student in Spokane Washington.
Dear Laura Ingalls Wilder,
Change is something many people are afraid of, but I know it can be wonderful. It is something I have never looked at in the same way since reading your book Little House on the Prairie and meeting Laura. My house burned down when I was seven, and I almost died in the fire. Since that night my dad rescued me from my burning bedroom, things were never the same. People have always described the fire as a great tragedy that hit our family, but I have never viewed it that way. Like Laura on the prairie, this was a time when I was faced with big changes. My family had no home to live in and not even our clothes to wear. But Laura taught me that life’s challenges can be viewed as a great adventure, something to be thankful for even, and this is a view I have chosen to adopt in my own life.
Laura’s life is full of challenges. Laura’s family is faced with the move to land that they work hard to settle on, but later learn they have to vacate after all of their hardship and effort. They are overcome by sickness. They even lose their dog, Jack. Laura never lets these events get the better of her. She feels the sadness and the disappointment but she becomes stronger because of them. Just last year, my Dad and I were hit by a truck while driving in our car to the garden store. Our car was wrecked, but we were not hurt badly. When we had to walk and take the bus everywhere in the snow for four months because we did not have a car, I thought of all the things that happened to the Ingalls family, all of the times they had to move because something was not working. This gave me a tremendous amount of strength and hope. Things always got better for the Ingalls, and through it all they had each other just like I have my Mom and Dad.
What Laura taught me most is that I can either be frightened or mad at life, or I can choose to view change as an opportunity to learn some valuable lessons. One of the most important lessons I learned from Laura and the Ingalls is that the challenges I face have to be greeted with gratitude. After the car accident when we had to walk everywhere, I started to think how thankful I was that I could walk. I realized that the car accident could have taken that away from me. I also realized that everyday, when I walked with my Dad, we spent time together and shared stories that I will always remember. The fire took our house and all of my clothes and toys away, but I still had my family and my pets, which is everything in the world that mattered to me. Just like in Little House, when Mr. Edwards brought Laura and Mary Christmas presents through the snow from far away, people were so kind and gave us all sorts of things. And folks at my school were so generous and caring. I never knew complete strangers could care like that. This was a gift.
It doesn’t really matter whether you like change or not, whether you embrace it or run the other way. It is sometimes wonderful, sometimes disappointing and often frightening, but it is always happening. Little House showed me that life is nothing but transition, and change is inevitable. The Ingalls knew this, and your book showed me I can rely as they did, on family, faith and community to get me through. I have learned that wherever the greatest challenge exists in my life is where the greatest growth is too. Little House on the Prairie taught me that it isn’t the tough times that define us, but rather our response to the challenges we face which makes us who we are. And that is the real gift for which I thank you.
Here is another winning letter that was written by Kaitlyn Krassalt, an 11th grader from Moscow in Idaho. I must confess that this letter made me smile and sniffle:
Dear Dr. Seuss,
First off, I would like to say that I have not been traumatized by any specific event, nor am I struggling with self-identification, suffering from a rare disease, dealing with the loss of a close family member, managing dysfunctional family issues, or stressed about fitting in with the stereotypical teenage crowd that roams the halls of every high school in America. I have not yet needed the help of your books to get through an especially rough patch in my life, mostly because I haven’t had any especially rough patches yet. I do, however, pay close attention to current issues and I am very aware of the problems that have created conflict among and within social groups throughout the world. In turn, I also spend a lot of time babysitting young children who have just boarded the Reading Railroad, allowing me to revisit the same books I enjoyed at their age.
Having become accustomed to books that lack pictures and require an analytical search for a deeper meaning hidden by the author, it is refreshing to step back into the shoes of my six-year-old self. I thoroughly enjoy returning to the worlds of the Sneetches, the Whos, and Cats in the Hats that made their way into my imagination with their tongue twisting dialogue and fascinating adventures. I have often wondered, since reading such stories, if our world is, in fact, a tiny speck on a clover just waiting to be protected by a fun-loving elephant named Horton.
I have waited on a rainy day for a cat in a striped red-and-white hat to waltz into my living room and sweep me off my feet, searched for a Wocket in my pocket, and tried with all my might to read with my eyes shut. It was not until I reentered the colorful universes created between the covers of your books that taught me how to sound out my vowels and string together consonants that I realized these stories were more than just fun. To be completely honest, I was shocked to discover that the stories I loved dealt with such real world issues as racism and social status. I had always thought of the thin books on the shelf as silly stories meant to teach kids the basics of the English language and instill such morals as sharing, saying please and thank you, and always being nice to others.
Upon further inspection, it became evident to me that such stories were not only meant as a lesson for the children learning to mind their p’s and q’s, but also a wake up call for the observant adults in charge of insuring their children’s education. The star-bellied sneetches were no different than the plain-bellied sneetches, despite the advice of Sylvester McMonkey McBean. The sneetches got so mixed up in their star-swapping that they could no longer remember who was supposed to better than the other. The Whos, who were so small they would barely be heard, were forced to join together just to fight for their cause—and the smallest Who, of course, made the biggest difference of all. It was the smallest who had the loudest voice, allowing their speck to be heard by Horton’s doubters and saved from a terrible fate.
I was thrilled to uncover such morals, even though they had always been there, unhidden and as obvious as the manners-based morals I had once assumed to be the only message on the page. The blatant reminders that our society is not the center of the universe, which are only subtle to the unassuming beginning reader, were inspiring to be found in such a format. Because of your stories, I was motivated to voice my opinions in essay contests, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars: Voice of Democracy contest in which I received the second place prize. As the daughter of a police officer, it was evident to me that they were not getting the recognition they deserved as veterans of very similar situations to those faced by other military branches. I felt the contest was a prime outlet for my opinion. I have also been able to use my newfound voice in articles I have written for local newspapers. It has become apparent to me that sometimes our method for letting our voice be heard is not always practical, but is always possible.
You have proven again and again that no matter what our message is, and no matter what our means of displaying our cause, it is always possible to let the world know how we feel, despite how small we think our voice may be. Upon rediscovering your stories, which have always remained close to my heart simply because of their sentimental value, I was reminded of my voice and its possible impact in the world today. Thank you.
You can see more of the winning letters here on the Letters about Literature website.