This spring it was my great pleasure to serve as a judge for the Letters on Literature program which is sponsored by the Library of Congress. It’s a nation wide reading and writing contest for students from 4th to 12th grade. In this contest students are asked to reflect on a book, poem, or speech that influenced them personally and then write a letter to that author (living or dead) to describe how that work of literature affected them. It’s one of the largest writing and reading programs in the country. Tens of thousands of students enter every year.
My role in this process came after the letters were sent in to the Library of Congress and after they’d gone through the preliminary screening. The Oregon State Librarian then received three batches of letters by grade school, middle school, and high school writers. She then assembled a team for each level with a public librarian, a school librarian and an author. We each got our batches of letters, 87 in my case, and a couple of weeks to read them. And then we had a very long conference call to choose a first, second, and third place winner and any letters we wanted to give an honorable mention. Each state winner goes on to a national competition. The winning letters are posted here on the Library of Congress website. http://www.read.gov/letters/ The 2013 winners have just been posted and are well-worth a read.
Here’s what I loved about the process of reading and selecting the winning letters. It reminded me yet again what an individual experience reading is. Every reader brings their whole self to the page and takes away their own unique experience of the story. What is for one reader overwhelming and scary is thrilling to another. What is utterly foreign for some readers will be as familiar as family others. And sometimes a reader will see something in a story that the author never intended, or even knew was there. One of the most surprising and moving encounters of my professional life was a meeting I had with a young Iraqi veteran. He had read my book Heart of a Shepherd in his adult English language class and told me that he felt my main character, the son of an army officer deployed to Iraq, was just like him. “He doesn’t have a heart for war but war seeks him.” he said. I was astonished that this man, who had fought against American forces would be open hearted enough to find a kinship with a child of an American soldier. This is a reader I never imagined would even find the book much less feel a connection to it.
And that is the beauty and I think the unique strength of story, it’s a participatory art in a way that performance-based arts seldom are. A book invites a reader to walk for a while in the world view of the story character. It asks a reader to use his or her imagination to fill in all the details not explicitly on the page. And best of all it invites a conversation not just with the author as happens with the Letters About Literature contest but also a conversation with friends and family and classmates and even a whole community of readers who’ve shared the experience of the book.
If you are a teacher, I hope you’ll consider encouraging your students to give Letters about Literature a try next year. If you’re an author I hope you’ll consider volunteering to judge at the state level.
If you are lucky enough to live in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia there is a summer writing contest called A Book That Shaped Me sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Book Festival. It’s an essay contest for raising 5th and 6th graders. All the details are here: http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/kids-teachers/booksthatshape.html There are cash prizes for state winners and finalists and the grand prize winners will be sent to the the National Book Festival to present their essays at a ceremony at the end of August. Best of luck to all you avid readers and writers who will enter this summer.