Out & About:

When connecting, I tell my kids, it’s important to look people in the eyes, use their names, and reveal something about yourselves. In the national writing contest, Letters About Literature, young writers connect. The purpose of the contest is nurturing and simple — kids read a piece of literature of their choice and then write a letter to the author (living or dead) explaining their connection to the text.  

Shed the ‘hourglass’ structure, the objective tone, and the fear of the personal ‘I.’ In this contest, the more personal, the better.  
Which is why I think my daughter Eleanore agreed to enter last October. She has misgivings about competitions of any kind, but after reading letters posted on the website, she relaxed. The entries were personal, sensitive, and accessible.

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This contest is equally about process as product. And it is magical in its ability to diminish the divisions between professional writers and young writers.   

Eleanore chose to write to Kirby Larson about her novel, ‘Hattie Big Sky,’ a Newbery Honor Book. For the two months it took her to finally address and lick that envelope, I watched Eleanore become progressively intimate with the book’s characters, plot, and theme. She returned to the book and marked the pages with asterisks and notes to herself, spoke emotionally to her family about events and characters, even experimented with some of the things Hattie does as a Montana homesteader in 1917.

Ultimately, in the multiple drafts of her letter, Eleanore connected the world Larson crafted to her own life. Each interaction with the text helped to urge her closer to the literature, closer to herself, and closer to the author.

She mailed her entry in last December along with 69,000 other kids from around the country. All entries landed in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress to be read and pared down. In the case of California, 200 letters headed back to UCLA, where graduates in library sciences and professionals read them and again thinned the piles. Last April, Eleanore learned that her letter to Ms. Larson had been awarded Honorable Mention in her age group for the state of California.

The prize was a gracious check, pride, connection to a book she’ll never forget, and most importantly, a cherished new relationship. Eleanore received a tender letter from Larson in personal, loopy cursive.

I am eager to share Eleanore’s experience because I hope it will encourage more local students to enter this contest and, in the process, discover and articulate personal connections to their favorite literature and authors. Info: lettersaboutliterature.org. Entries must be postmarked by Dec. 10.

~By Carolyn Hamilton

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