2016 Level I Winners
Alexander Jadoo, McGuire Middle School, Lakeville
(letter to Brian Falkner, author of Brain Jack)
Dear Brian Falkner,
I write to you, to thank you for your writing. You have opened my eyes to the truth that hides behind a grand illusion. You have allowed me to discover the code of our lives, to read, in depth, the lines of our past, present, and look to the future. For the years to come, I will remember Brain Jack for what it has done for me.
Your novel Brain Jack is an enticing and exciting thriller. That is how I would have described it while reading. It kept me at the edge of my seat through Sam Wilson’s entire journey. I thoroughly loved it. But now, looking back, I see much more to the story. I now see that it has changed my perspective on many topics. It has taught me lessons. It has, hopefully, warned all who have read it, about our near future.
The only difference between Brain Jack and real life, I recognized, is the traumas and disasters that ravaged their land, and the new technology incorporated. I realized this and almost thought I was reading realistic fiction, until the “neuro-headsets” were introduced. The neuro-headsets seem very interesting. I believe it is a very close concept to the new virtual-reality gaming headsets coming out. If you did not know, the virtual-reality headsets are systems designed to literally show you a 3-D virtual construction of a preferred world. You can play games on them, and such. Soon enough, they will advance enough to become as efficient as a neuro-headset, which is quite scary. I am a science-enthusiast, but I must say, technology is rapidly improving, at an intimidating rate. Seeing as people are so addicted to their phones, imagine what would happen when headsets are released! “Right now, I am sifting through the contents of your computer. Yes, your computer. You. The one holding this paper. I am reading your Emails, looking at your digital photos and images you have downloaded off the Net, opening your most private documents and having a good read, or a good laugh, depending on the content” (a quote from your book). It would be a simple matter for an elite hacker to break into someone’s headset, which would damage their brains. It is frightening isn’t it!?!
Mr. Falkner, your book showed me even more than that. It not only changed my opinion on technology, but it changed my political view. It aroused a new feeling deep in my gut. A feeling that I can sometimes forget, but never get rid of. I realized the path our modern-day society is taking. It is a corrupted path that corrodes with different controversial groups. Democrats and Republicans. Economists and Environmentalists. Cops and Robbers. The United States, and extremists. This world is falling to ashes. The way we run it is confusing. Things are too unfair. Evil lurks in our very presence. It could be your neighbor, or your best friend. Racism, sexism, it is all idiotic and uncalled for. It all needs to stop, or we’ll destroy ourselves, be it bomb by bomb, shot by shot, or dollar by dollar.
If, or when neuro-headsets do become a reality, I hope we are prepared. I hope that we have changed. If not, we shall surely fall to destruction when our own collective consciousness is developed. Like the one in your book, I believe ours would not know right from wrong, especially since there are so many bad people out there who want evil things.
All of this scares me, and I hope to do something about it when I grow up. But, I do thank you Mr. Falkner, for all that you’ve done. Brain Jack is surely a book I will remember.
Alexander S. Jadoo, Grade 6
Marie Schumacher, Lake Country School, Minneapolis
(letter to Elizabeth George Speare, author of The Witch of Blackbird Pond)
Dear Elizabeth George Speare,
I have read your book, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, many times. Reading it every single time has been a thrilling journey. I have laughed with the characters, learned with the characters, and at the appropriate times, cried with the characters. While reading your book, I not only learned about that time period in the seventeenth century and the way many people lived then, but I also learned a lot about who I want to be. In this book, many of the characters live their lives governed by fear and prejudice. What they did not understand they feared. And what they feared they denigrated. After reading your novel, I realized that I never want to be like that. I have the gift to choose what I believe and who I want to be. I want to be someone who can think clearly and whose decisions are not clouded. I am currently twelve years old, and I think this is an age when children are especially judgemental, even to people they don’t know. Your book was a reminder about what could happen when people make unfair judgements. While reading your book I also realized that I should not be afraid of things and people I don’t understand; I should instead be interested to learn more about them.
I also realized how lucky I am to have a happy life in a loving community. I do realize that even though many of the characters in the book unjustly judged Hannah and Kit, that does not mean that those who judged were all bad people. They are just doing what they believed was right, and what they were taught from a young age. If you grow up being taught to act or think a certain way, your whole life will reflect what you learned. I live in a community where we believe in peace, freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of belief. I have been taught from a young age that there is no “normal” and everyone is unique. Just because someone is different from you, or different from what society says is normal, that does not mean that there is something wrong with them. If I had grown up in a different time or place, I might have different ideals or beliefs. The Witch of Blackbird Pond helped me appreciate what I have, and become more compassionate to others who are not so lucky.
Reading your story made me envision what it would have been like to be in a cold, dark prison cell awaiting trial. I imagined the way the ground would feel, the way my stomach would tighten with fear every few minutes, and I thought of the way the musty air might have smelled. Envisioning this made me really sad, because that really could have happened—that and worse. And though I was appalled when I learned about witch trials, I also knew that we have improved our world since that time, and every day we constantly do so. As we work on making the world a better place, there are some major and minor setbacks. But for the most part, I feel that we are moving forward. I hope that in my life I can do something to contribute to the world.
I really enjoy doing realistic creative writing. Your book helped me realize that if I ever write a story, I should not sugar-coat my writing. That does not mean that I would write only tragic material. (I would also add in moments of joy, laughter and happiness.) But I would add in a realistic balance of sad to accompany the happiness. That would make my stories easier to comprehend and more realistic.
Thank you for writing such a great book that helped me become a better person (and a better author). I will always love reading your book.
Third Place (tie):
Ani Heikkila, Parkview School, Roseville
(letter to J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series)
Dear J.K. Rowling,
“To the well organized mind, death is the next great adventure.” I remember when I first heard those words. I was probably four, yet they seem to hold so much. But so much what? What did they hold? I didn’t find out until I was six.
I was reading the Harry Potter books to myself for the first time; it hit me then. It hit me so hard, tears of pain came to my eyes. I realized at that moment, that all life must end. Every beautiful creature, plant, even human must leave the earth forever. I realized that my grandfather was gone. Forever. He was never coming back.
At that point I had thrown the book down. How could anyone tell a child that horrible truth? How? I sat there in a dazed pain. But, being me, I crawled back to the book. “To the well organized mind, death is the next great adventure.” The words were so tantalizing. So, so… there were no words to describe those words. I started to contemplate the meaning. Maybe, just maybe, they meant something, something other than what I first thought. That death is not really the end. In a way it is the beginning. It was a wondrous thought. Like sweet little snowflakes landing in your hair and on your tongue. Those words were my guardian. They followed me and reassured me when other family members become ill or passed on.
Then came the time when school became more and more like a prison than anything else. My teacher seemed to hate me and I stopped doing my homework. Of course because I chose to never do my homework or participate in class I got notes home. Notes that had to be signed. I never got them signed. Which led to more trouble. Basically, I was sent to my room. A lot. Harry Potter saved me all of those times, and, eventually, reformed me.
I think that Neville helped me the most with my school troubles. I know lots of people would think that’s strange. Why not Hermione? Because school, to her, seemed so easy. And she freaked out about extra credit, while I was freaking out about actually getting my homework done. Neville was a little different than anybody else. He wasn’t a hero like Harry, a genius like Hermione, and he didn’t have a rare hair color, like Ron. He was rather unattractive and school didn’t seem to be his thing. (Other than herbology, but I had my subject too, language arts!) He was a lot like me. But, unlike myself, he at least tried to be a good student. So once I realized how cool Neville was, I turned over a new leaf.
Yes, I know I said that Hermione didn’t help me with my whole school fiasco, but she did help with something else. Confidence. I am 11 years old, and of course, with growing up comes insecurities. For a while I hated myself. Why didn’t I have any talents? Why was my friend so dazzling when I was so horribly hideous? Why was she so smart? Why was that girl so athletic? Why was I none of those things? Hermione helped me with all of these negative, self-destroying thoughts. She taught me that I could do things no one else could. That just being myself was enough. She taught me that just because I was a girl I didn’t have to spend all of my time looking pretty and talking about make up. That I could accomplish things like writing books and creating machines that actually work. She taught me my hair color (a color I once called dirty blonde but I now know as caramel) was beautiful and that I was important. That I could change the world.
True, other characters helped me too. Ron taught me that being in the spotlight isn’t always that great, Harry showed me how important it is to be brave and Ginny helped me learn that a little sass is a good thing. But I think Hermione and Neville helped me the most. And for that I thank you.
I thank you for creating a magic beyond magic, for bringing Harry and Ron, Ginny and Hermione and Neville to life. I thank you for helping me. l gave credit to the characters when, really, you are the characters. You are Dumbledore, Harry, Mrs. Weasley and Ron. You are Hogwarts, the burrow and the grave where Harry faced Voldemort. You are Mr. Ollivander and everything he says. Curious, curious. I thank you for all of these things, but most of all I thank you for making a huge impact on my life.
Thank you, Mrs. Rowling.
Gracie Ritzenthaler, Visitation School, Mendota Heights
(letter to Thanhha Lai, author of Inside Out and Back Again)
Dear Thanhha Lai,
Your book, Inside Out and Back Again, changed my perspective on bravery. Your book showed me that there are other ways of being brave. I thought being brave meant being a soldier or withstanding physical pain. But now I know that courage is bravery, too. Your character, Kim Ha was forced out of her home in Vietnam and fled with her family to America. That is courageous because she had to start over in a new place, and find a new home. She left behind all she had. I have never moved from the house I grew up in. It is hard to imagine moving to another continent with only the clothes on my back. I have traveled to other countries that speak different languages and that was hard, but I have never had to go to school using another language.
After reading your book, I talked with my Great-Uncle who fought in the Vietnam War. He was an American helicopter pilot. My Great-Uncle told me stories about his experiences during his three tours of duty in Vietnam. Now I think that another kind of bravery is being a loyal soldier in an unpopular war. The Vietnam War was very destructive, but my Great-Uncle showed courage by doing his job—even though he thought the war was created by politicians. He said that he fought for the other soldiers, and for the Vietnamese people that they promised to keep safe. He flew many rescue missions to get people out of tight spots. He flew families like Hà’s to safety in his helicopter.
Another way of being brave is sticking up for yourself. Hà was teased very badly in school. In third grade I was treated badly, too. I was bullied, called names, and felt very miserable. Hà was also bullied, called names, and miserable too. Because she was different, people treated her like she didn’t belong, and when I read that, I think I understood how she felt. People like the Man in the Cowboy Hat, Miss Washington, and Steven and Pam in school helped her feel she belonged by helping her and including her. Ha felt like she could stick up for herself, and she did. Things turned out better for her. When I stood up for myself at school things started to turn out better for me, too.
Even though I did not have to leave my home and move to a different country, I could empathize with Hà’s treatment in school. I was glad that she never gave up. I think that not giving up when times are tough is courageous too. After reading your book, I think that bravery is finding a place to belong even when you have to start over, doing your job even when it is hard, and standing up for yourself when it is the right thing to do. Thank you for sharing the story of Hà’s life with me.
2016 Level II Winners
Natalie Anderson, The Blake School, Minneapolis
(letter to George Orwell, author of Animal Farm)
Dear George Orwell,
After reading every single word in your book Animal Farm at least three times, this passage will always stick with me, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This twisted reasoning was used to oppress the animals in the novel by making some animals think they were better than others. For example, there was only one candidate for president, but the farm’s commandments declared the farm to be a society of equals. Although your book is 70 years old, your ideas about equality still hold true. I can see this idea of equality applied, in regards to the treatment of women in the workplace today. When I read this quote in your book, it reminded me of the stories my mom has told me about her quest for equality in her job.
The idea of different types of equality also applies to your famous quote: “4 legs good, 2 legs better!” This quote was used by the two-legged animals to make themselves appear superior to the four-legged animals as the pigs started to parallel the recent enemy, humans. I believe that this idea still holds true today. Although, women maybe change make up to a different word comprise more than half of all college graduates, they still earn significantly less than men, and are less likely to hold executive positions. For example, Google, which is one of the most famous technology corporations, has approximately 16 percent women in executive positions and its board of directors is approximately 25 percent women. So in this way, women in the real world are like the 4-legged animals, and men are like the 2-legged animals in your book.
There are only so many laws that we can enact to protect the abuse of power, but the important thing is that people have to live by the laws. In the United States today, we have many checks and balances intended to protect people from gender discrimination, yet it happens every day. I hear about gender discrimination from my mother when she tells the stories of events that happen at her work. She has been been called out and even fired based on her gender. Also, most of the positions above her are male, and this makes it hard to get promoted to higher positions. Many people are convinced that everyone is equal, but if that is true, why do the statistics tell us otherwise? Gender inequality may be due to our history in the United States.
When you wrote Animal Farm, did you think about how your critique of society applied to equality, more specifically gender roles? As you wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future.” Your book was written 70 years ago, but it still applies to the present and I am certain it will apply to the future. Given when you wrote the book, I don’t think you intended to write about gender inequality, but as I read your book as a 13-year-old girl in 2015, that is what I most appreciate. Soon I may experience these things as I leave school and enter the workforce. I see unfair gender roles and expectations being portrayed all around me, including in my mother’s work. I believe that the solution to this is not to promote the novel’s idea that “all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others,” but rather to give everyone in society equal opportunities to pursue their ambitions and be rewarded for their achievements.
Andrea Hansen, Wayzata East Middle School, Plymouth
(letter to J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series)
Your books have changed my life. Your books have helped me through a time where I felt hurt and always sad. For years I thought that I did not need to read the Harry Potter series, I thought that if I did I would be following the crowd—I was wrong. Your books taught me about how you can choose your own path, just like
Harry chose to be in Gryffmdor. I learned the value of friendship through your books by looking at how Harry, Hermione, and Ron always stuck together, and after I had finished reading them I knew I wouldn’t change a thing.
I read your books at a time when I did not feel as though I belonged. I was in fifth grade and felt excluded by all of my friends except one. That one friend and I made a bet, whoever could finish a book faster would have to read a book of the others choice. I finished that book one day after my best friend and she told me I would have to read your Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I went to the library and checked the book out and began to read. Instantly I was entranced; I wished I could escape the life I was in to go to this mystical world with wizards and witches, and magical creatures! I read your first book in three days. Then I read the second. My friend told me I looked as though I had truly been there, I was glowing with happiness, and oh, I wished I had been!
I read your entire series in three weeks. I longed to go to the mysterious school called Hogwarts. I wished I could be sorted into a house that was right for me and take the magical classes. For one of the first times that year I felt truly happy, then my other friends figured out what I was reading. A few of my friends—like my best friend—were supportive; others were not. “I thought you vowed never to read Harry Potter,” some of them said. “What’s with all of this stuff? Is it from that book series?” They were like the dementors sucking the happiness out of my life.
Then my best friend came along like a patronus, “Don’t listen to them. We should watch some of the movies at my house!” I knew right there that she would be in Gryffmdor, standing up for me in that courageous way. Those were her friends, too, yet she decided to stick up for me. I couldn’t have been at the place I am now without her.
Together my friend and I looked for ways to become part of the story, then we found Pottermore. We joined and were sorted into the same house—Ravenclaw—and cast spells and concocted potions; we loved it. A year later I got a writing app and saw people writing stories about The Harry Potter series, fan-fictions. With that I could see how much you had inspired people to write. You would not guess how many original stories I see where the author says, “J.K. Rowling inspired me to write this story.” You have inspired so many people, including me.
Because of your books I have learned so much. In order to be an amazing person you must be: kind like a Hufflepuff, creative like a Ravenclaw, calculating like a Slytherin, and most of all, brave like a Gryffmdor. Your books brought me out of a very hard time. Without them I would have been a quiet fifth grade girl who thought she had no friends, and who cried each day when she got home because school was so sad. Now, I like to think I am a strong seventh grade girl, who had to brave friendship problems but learned it always ends up okay. Your books were an escape to me, just like the wizarding world was an escape to Harry. Now I’ve learned that sometimes you just need an escape because the real world can be quite tough. We can all choose to be brave, smart, cunning, or kind; we all have those qualities in us. It’s how we use those qualities that makes us who we truly are, you taught me that with your books and I will be forever grateful.
Sincerely, a loyal reader and Potter Head,
Aaryan Gulati, The Blake School, Minneapolis
(letter to Marcus Zusak, author of The Book Thief)
Dear Mr. Zusak,
Which is more powerful: words and books or bullets and guns? Until I read The Book Thief, I would have always said bullets and guns, but in your book it is words that lead to compassion, such as reading to the kids and adults to take their minds of the bombing and sorrow, such as how Hitler enslaves Germany using them. You show how words lead to one of the most horrific events in history—the Holocaust. Books and words also help shield a young girl, Liesel, from the horror of Nazi Germany. She learns that the ideas expressed in books have the power to change the world for better or worse.
Liesel Meminger develops into a compassionate and confident person through her love of reading books. At the beginning of the book, she is illiterate and scared. She is forced to live in a foster home because her mother can’t take care of her after her brother’s death, but when her foster father, Hans, starts to teach her to read and write, the world opens up to her. She develops the name Book Thief because she loves books so much she steals them. Liesel steals from a book burning fire in the center of town, the mayor’s house, and her brother’s grave. Liesel uses reading to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany. She also uses books to help others by reading to them to distract them during bombing raids.
Books even saved her life. Towards the end of the book, Liesel starts writing her own book, and while she is in the basement in the middle of the night, everyone else dies in an accidental bombing raid. She survives to see the destruction of Himmel street and everything in it. Only two things survived: Liesel, and her book. I think this scene is a symbolic way for you to show that it is words and books that saved her life. Her book survived, and that is symbolic of the fact that words are immortal. No matter what happens to the world, nothing will take away the power of words.
Your book also shows how words can cause great suffering. You show how Hitler rose to power through his words and speeches, and influential propaganda. He convinced the people that he could lead Germany from darkness into “the sunshine.” How did he convince them? Did he threaten them with weapons? No, he simply used the power of words. Then, when he did come to power, he wrote his own book and burned others. He wrote Mein Kampf, his journal. He also burned others’ books to prevent the spread of ideas that would compete with his own ideas.
This book has helped me understand the true power of words. Words contain ideas, logic, facts and knowledge. They can change the face of history and in some cases, for the worse as you demonstrate through Hitler in your book. But words have also been used for good by people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. MLK used words to bring equality to the U.S., where I live. Ghandi used words to free India from British rule. Neither ever raised a gun or committed an act of violence, but changed the world. Even today, groups like ISIS use words and propaganda to attract fighters from other countries.
As I end my letter, I would like to thank you for writing this book. It has made me study more about Hitler’s rise to power and WWII. You really have taught me that words are power, and I will go on with life with that lesson. I will start using words to convince my younger brother instead of pummeling him. I will get into less trouble that way. I leave you with your own line from Leisel: ” I have hated words, and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
2016 Level III Winners
Dani Dahlseid, Robbinsdale Cooper High School, New Hope
(letter to Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why)
Dear Jay Asher,
It might be strange for a girl to write to you about a book you wrote about another dead girl, but “Thirteen Reasons Why” was a book that had given me hope when I needed it most.
I was in seventh grade when your book’s words truly affected me. I was only twelve, but I hated myself. I hated the way I looked, the way I spoke, my actions, the way I thought, the very breath that I took every day just for the fact that it had kept me alive. When you see a twelve year old, you don’t think this is something that could possibly be dancing across their mind. And what most people don’t realize is that a twelve year old is fully capable of pain, and I was. I was truly ashamed of everything apart of my being, and I hadn’t a clue as to where to even start loving myself. I was depressed. I figured that if you already constantly felt like death, then so be it. I was dead already, why not make things official. This was a snake in my mind that unhinged its jaw and consumed every other thought, making sure it was the only one that was left standing. It was like an actress, and it was dire that she had the starring role. The thought made me warm, and made me feel beautiful in a twisted way. The solitude intrigued me, and I felt that if I pursued the thought there would be nothing else there to hurt me, including myself. Its dark caress lulled me with the idea that death would put my wild mind at ease.
It didn’t help that two of my best friends were struggling with their own battles, either. One of them was anorexic, and the other was addicted to the blood they shed, and both of their minds were hazed with sadness and despair. I was surrounded by hell, constantly fighting off my demons (and I knew they were winning), and that no one would save me—though people were trying. My counselor, who had sent me to the hospital by ambulance, afraid that I would die. My teacher, who checked up on me almost every day. My friends, who constantly tried to cheer me up despite their own vices and problems. But all of them were dismissed, because the voices that rang inside my head convinced me otherwise. I was so caught up in it all, I was delusional. Looking back, I realize that it’s not that people weren’t trying, it’s that I wasn’t listening. And the craziest thing of all is throughout most of it, I felt alone, although people around me were dealing with depression themselves.
Now, I had read “Thirteen Reasons Why” before seventh grade, but I figured that I could relate to Hannah, since she killed herself and I was strongly considering it, so I thought why not reread it. And I did, and it was your book that had finally opened my mind and had gotten me to listen, because it showed me just how much I affected others. When Hannah’s death tapes reached Clay, her words kept him up all night. Her words affected everyone who had to listen to them, knowing they were one of the reasons why she had committed suicide. The stages of grief Clay went through throughout the story were terrific, from disbelief to anger to utter despair, and I didn’t realize people had that great of an effect on each other. Furthermore, I didn’t realize that I had that great of an effect on anyone until I reread this book.
I thought about all of my friends and family. I started to think of how important they were to me, and how sad I’d be and how much it would truly drive me mad if I found out any of them were dead. Like how it broke Clay’s heart to find out Hannah was dead, my heart would sink to my feet, until the ground stopped it from gravity weighing it down further. I started to compare myself to Hannah. I realized we were similar, how she and I both felt helpless and tired of trying. I noticed how Clay tried to help her, and how she overlooked his effort the same way I had overlooked my friends. I thought about my parents, and I felt like if I gave up, I would let them down. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to come clean to my mother about feeling this way. Maybe that’s why I still haven’t told my dad. I thought about my sister, who meant the world to me, my best friend, I thought about what she’d do. She was depressed too, I thought about all of the possibilities of her causing any harm. I hated the thought of it more than I hated myself. Yes, Hannah and I were similar, but our endings wouldn’t be. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to try, because I wouldn’t want anyone else to give up.
After my change of heart, I’ve had several struggles, but I’ve learned that it’s all about perspective. It’s easy to drown yourself in negativity, but it’s unnecessary and can be avoided. I now try my best to keep a positive mindset, and though there are many bumps in the road, I’m still trying. In eighth grade, it got bad again, but instead of fighting it myself, I sought out help. It gave me a newfound hope, and it made me realize that death wasn’t what I had wanted, but peace within myself. Without you, I don’t know if I would have found the strength and motivation to carry on. I’m just very thankful that I did happen to stumble upon your book, because it helped me realize that I wanted to survive, and gave me the courage to begin again.
Thank you, for helping me find light within my life. Books like these are the “reasons why” I’m here.
Julie Eilers, White Bear Lake High School, White Bear Lake
(letter to Dr. Seuss, author of The Cat in the Hat)
Dear Dr. Seuss,
Everybody has things they don’t mention, and subjects they try to avoid at all costs. In my case, this “thing” is a large chunk of my childhood.
The combination of an absent father and a mentally ill mother is one combination I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone, although these were the cards I was dealt, so to speak. As I grew up, my mother’s schizophrenic tendencies along with a refusal to take medication began to affect me. At age five, when it was time for me to enroll in kindergarten, she insisted I would be homeschooled. My grandmother, along with the rest of my family, refused to let her do this; she was barely fit to be a parent, let alone handle her child’s education. She packed up our belongings, put them in our VW bus, and drove all the way to California with dreams of homeschooling me.
These dreams died quickly, as I was removed from my mother’s care and placed into the foster care system after around a month of homelessness in the middle of California. As a five-year-old who grew up having her mother as her best and only friend, it was a heart-wrenching situation. The more I understand the world, the more I am grateful for the rescue from the life I almost ended up with.
Back in Minnesota, my grandma was working on getting custody of me. For now, I had to live in California with complete strangers. I started kindergarten when I was a little bit older than six years old, but since I already knew the basic skills of reading and writing, I skipped kindergarten completely and moved to first grade. This is where your book comes into play, Dr. Seuss. We received an assignment that we must read a book of our choice to the class, and we were required to practice for 30 minutes a night, reading aloud to our parents. I chose the book, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
The book itself isn’t what is so important to me. It is this simple act of innocence that stands out so much to me from the time I spent in foster care: although my life was the opposite of what a five-year-old’s life should look like, I still had this one thing tying me to my childhood. It made me feel normal, reading my The Cat in the Hat to my foster parents, without a care in the world. It also taught me a lesson, that you should always appreciate the little things, especially when you have nothing. This “little thing” helped keep me going, helped remind me that I was still a normal kid who had experienced a negative event: but I was not going to let it change me. This lesson still shows through in my life, constantly reminding myself that I am not defined by the things I experienced. Thank you, Dr. Seuss, for reviving the child in a girl who was completely lost, feeling as though she would never be “normal” again.
Claire Hank, White Bear Lake High School, White Bear Lake
(letter to anonymous, In the Silence)
Dear author who can not be named,
Your poem “In The Silence” touched the very core of my heart six years ago. Before Dec. 7th 2008, I was a happy third grader who loved to smile and give hugs; also I was emotional and sensitive. In third grade I was prone to daydreaming and was starting to be interested in reading. However, December seventh was the day I stopped loving to smile, giving hugs to others, and became more guarded with my emotions.
Dec. 7th 2008, my older brother left my life. Most people revisit the memory of a dead loved one so much, that it becomes hazy like a Polaroid photograph that caught too much sun. I don’t visit that memory much; sometimes it feels like it happened yesterday. The memory is like a movie in it’s so detailed.
On that day, my brothers and I were having a snowball fight and my older brother threw a snowball at my face and bits of ice scratched the comers of my eyes. My nine-year-old self cried and carried on causing my brother to be grounded. While my younger brother and I went sledding with our neighbors, my older brother snuck into my parent’s bathroom, opened their medicine cabinet, and took my dad’s heart medication. My dad found him after he took the medication and called 911. My next-door neighbor’s mom was called by one of my parents. Her eyes went wide and said we had to go home. We began to run pulling our sleds behind us as the snow fell. The world seemed to grow darker with each minute we were hung in suspense. My neighbor’s dad picked my neighbor’s up in his pickup truck and took them home. Their mom continued to run with my brother and I. My heart stopped as I saw a red ambulance parked outside our house. My parents asked my neighbors if my brother and I could stay at their house for a while until one of my godmothers came; they said we could.
We played in the basement, but something didn’t feel right; like the calm before the storm. When our godmother came we made chocolate milkshakes, played Mexican train, and watched a movie. We asked her what was wrong, but I don’t think she replied. When my parents came home they were crying-I had never seen my parents cry before. They brought us into the living room and my brother and I sat on the couch while they sat across from us on the large ottoman. The only words I heard before the world became silent is, “Devin is dead.” We fell into our parents arms sobbing and they continued their stream of tears as they held us. The car ride to St. John’s hospital was filled with tears and a heavy silence.
In the silence you hear me, In the silence I am here.
I played the sound of his voice in my head and felt his absence. After the brief car ride, we entered the stark white waiting room filled with colorful tissue boxes and ugly wool cushioned chairs. Then we were lead to a white room with my brother covered in white-dressed in a white hospital gown, a white blanket laid over his body. He was connected to machines but they were turned off. A tube was in his left nostril. His chestnut hair, his unblinking blue eyes and silver braces shone in the fluorescent lights of the room. The doctor said they used a defibrillator on him, numerous times. They used charcoal in his stomach to work against the medicine he had taken but he went into cardiac arrest. ‘He can’t be dead’ I thought, ‘He looked too alive, he seems to be asleep with his eyes open.’ The doctor said we could take the beanie babies resting by him on the gurney; my brother took the yellow lab and I took the other. It was a celebration bear with colorful confetti pattern on a white background. Now that I think about it, that was an ill chosen beanie baby.
In the silence you can feel me.
A week later a friend of my mom’s gave her this poem, and I read it. I drank in your words as if I was dying of thirst. In the light of sympathy and understanding in which the poem was given, I saw the truth and hope woven among your words. The truth and hope became my golden thread that I climbed out of the abyss of hollowness, depression, and loneliness and into the realm of the living.
For a few years I blamed myself for my brother’s death. However, when I told one of my parents that I blamed myself they told me he wouldn’t have wanted me to. They also told me that he had depression which he took medication for, and that it still might have happened. Maybe later, maybe in a different way. In later years I realized that my brother committed suicide.
Talk to me, say my name, know that I’m still here, In my death I have a new life, and one day that will be clear. So talk to me and look for me in everything you do, for I haven ‘t gone so far away, I’m really right next to you.
This part of your poem has stayed with me for six years because I believe that my big brother is always with me and watching over me. That the realm of the living and the dead are not separate things, but that the line between them is blurred, and that somehow we live among each other, but on different planes of reality. I find comfort and closure in that verse because death doesn’t stop you from loving someone, and that when my time comes I’ll see my brother again. And that through death my brother has a new life, and through his death I too have a new life.
Know that I’m still here … for I haven’t gone so far away.
With thanks and a new life,
2015 Level I Winners
Sara Nadian, Rush Creek Elementary, Maple Grove
(Letter to Suzanne LaFleur, author of Love, Aubrey)
Dear Suzanne LaFleur,
Have you ever heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me”? Well, it’s not true. Words do hurt. A lot. I’ve never really thought about how much hurt people cause in the world, just by the simple, willful words, “I hate you.” I was deaf to my words, too. I couldn’t hear them. Until I read your book, Love, Aubrey. Your book taught me a lesson about how to appreciate what I have, and Aubrey’s bravery inspired me to stand up to my dad’s harsh words and actions.
My dad has always been really hard on me. He always puts me down, and has even told me he hates me. I feel like he has left me on my own, just like Aubrey’s mother left her. When I read the part about Aubrey’s dad dying, I cried. I realized how much I love my dad, and I know he loves me too. I immediately felt terrible for Aubrey, like the words had become a scene in in a movie about my friend, or like it was really happening to me. This is the only book I have ever cried for, and the only one I have ever truly thought about.
I have never been really confident, have always been self-conscious. I always thought I had the worst problems in the world. But after I read your book, it was almost like a light turned on inside me. I realized not what I don’t have, but what I do have. I am one of the luckiest people alive. I can walk. I can breathe easily. My parents have jobs. I have parents. Thanks to Aubrey I have the power to stop feeling sorry for myself, and I can make a difference in this world. I can be who I really want to be.
My life is different now. I don’t hate anybody. I don’t hate anything. Your book unlocked my cage door, and I opened my eyes. I feel like I’m a happier person, and I have a different view on life. It’s not what I can’t do, it’s what I can do. I can walk, I can talk, I can hear. I’m not deaf to what I say to people. I can hear.
Second Place (tie):
Dillon Kischell, Kellogg Middle School, Rochester
(Letter to Ned Vizzini, author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story)
Dear Sabra Embury,
I felt like before I read your late husband’s novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story I had no understanding of what depressed people go through on a daily basis. After reading the novel I now understand what one of my depressed family members feels like. I can see him in the character Craig Gilner, with his constant annoyance with everyday life. I can see my family member in the character with his inability to relate to any human being in a positive manner. Just like my family member Craig Gilner was encouraged to take an antidepressant medicine and also like my family’ member he was taking the medicine and thought he would be okay without it.
After reading this fine piece of literature, I would like to express how this has impacted, and changed how I think about people who are going through the hardship of depression. Now when I interact with my family member who is suffering from depression I can see that some of the things that they do and say are a symptom of their depression. Now I try not to react in such a negative manner towards them, because I have read Ned’s novel. For example when the character Aaron was dealing with Craig’s situation he did this in a rude way by teasing Craig about his depression, this part of the book taught me not to act the way Aaron did towards Craig.
Before I read this book I could not empathize with my family member whom is suffering with ongoing depression. Since reading about Ned’s character, Craig Gilner I can empathize with my family member to some extent. Just like Craig Gilner’s mother I feel as if I can help him but it never seems to improve the situation. Also like his mother I feel like I always make the situation worse not better for my family member. I feel like nothing ever helps and no matter what I do, they never see the joy that can be experienced from life.
Since reading your husband’s thought provoking novel, I can better understand why people with depression are so annoyed by people who appear to be happy no matter the situation that they are in. An example that your husband depicts in his work that expresses this, and helps me understand why they feel this way is: when Craig was in Aaron’s room, and was thinking about how good Aaron’s life is and how Aaron aces his way into Manhattan’s Pre-Professional High School without even studying, Craig however had to waste a lot of time with flashcards and hefty books. My family member also has these feelings he is envious of people who appear to have a far more superior life than his, without as much work as he had to go through to get to where he is.
I would like to thank your husband for giving me a better insight to what is going on in a depressed person’s complicated mind, and how I can relate to them better. l would say that his book helped me as a twelve-year old to learn how to cope with living with a depressed family member. I would like to thank your husband for constructing such an insightful novel that looks at depression from a teenager’s view.
Jack MapelLentz, Visitation School, Mendota Heights
(Letter to John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars)
Dear John Green,
Sometimes I’d just sleep in, letting time slip by like sand through an hourglass. But The Fault In Our Stars made me realize that time goes too fast … or, rather, we make it speed by us. You showed me that every second has a meaning; that one memorable second is worth a thousand meaningless seconds.
First, let me say this: Post reading, I noticed that everything I thought about for the next 24 hours originated from Hazel and Augustus’ trip to Orange. Even though they were both going through horrible times in their lives, they managed to be happy in the rush of the world and enjoy time. They suspended the world, and I realized that only then can one truly be happy.
As I read on, I started wondering why we make time fly by, instead of savoring it. We only get so many seconds—why waste them?
After finishing your book, I started to cache my day in my head so that I could go over everything I learned, relive the most joyful moments, and find hidden meanings. I even rediscovered my old pocket notebook … that I had only written in once. Now I write daily, and even when I don’t, it is still with me, in my pocket, to live my life with me and remind me that each little thing amounts to something bigger.
Your book opened up a billion doors for me. It showed me new light and freed me from a box that contained all of my thought about life.
Sometimes when I am bored I just lie down in my bed and fall half-asleep—on purpose—just to dream. So that I can remember it; to reveal something. So really, I sleep to dream. But when I’m not dreaming, I wake up an hour early to live an hour more.
Peyton Lenz, St. Michael-Albertville Middle School East, St. Michael
(Letter to Lauren Tarshis, author of the I Survived series)
Dear Lauren Tarshis,
I never really thought about how many kids go through life or death situations. I never thought that kids actually were split from their families when something horrible was happening. When I was younger, I thought kids were always safe and when bad things happen, only adults were in danger. Reading the I Survived series, it made me realize people my age, and even younger were on their own during disasters and attacks.
When I saw the destruction of the Japanese tsunami in 2011 on the news, it was absolutely terrible. Rubble everywhere, people standing, in disbelief, staring at their crumbled houses. Seeing the crowded buildings where people took refuge during the huge wave. It’s crazy to believe that these things really happen, and that they can be so heartbreaking.
While reading your books, I realized that these things can happen to anyone, at anytime, and when they do happen it’s totally unexpected. For the kids in your stories, they often are separated from their families, and it makes me think what it would be like if that happened to me? Nobody to go to when you’re scared, nobody to tell you that it’s going to be okay, most of them were on their own, and had to brave through it. They didn’t know if they were going to survive, or if they would ever see their family again. Think about how hard it would be, especially as a kid, to go through something like what the children in your books did.
We never really think about what it would be like if we were in a situation of life or death, or if we’re separated from our families. Most of us think it will never happen to us. But what we don’t understand, is that it can happen to anyone. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re a child, neither do terrorists. Kids are as equally in danger as adults are in these disasters, and reading your series makes us realize that.
2015 Level II Winners
Soren Eversoll, Capitol Hill Magnet School, St. Paul
(Letter to Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories)
Dear Mr. Conan Doyle:
Sherlock Holmes. Your detective is more popular now than he was back in the 1890s when you wrote about him!
For this reason I write to you about your four novels and fifty-six short stories about the great detective and his partner, Doctor Watson, which have changed my life in so many ways.
Picture a seven-year old me, in our car after swim practice. Knowing how much I enjoyed stories, my mom got me an audio-book of some of the best Sherlock Holmes tales. When I first listened to “The Speckled Band” and pictured the foggy cobble stoned streets and dark alleyways of Victorian London, I was instantly drawn to the mystery, twists and turns, the dastardly villain and Holmes, a genius as always. By the time I finally returned the audio-book to the library, I wanted to read more.
I borrowed a complete, leather-bound Sherlock Holmes compendium from my grandpa’s library complete with drawings by Sidney Paget, your excellent illustrator. The stories gripped me and still do. “The Final Problem,” “The Musgrave Ritual,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” — all devoured.
In an empty closet in our home I recreated Holmes and Watson’s 221B Baker Street sitting room. The room was about as wide as my seven-year-old wingspan, but I filled it with a gasogene made out of a jam jar, test tubes and strange containers with colored water, a samurai sword, and a faux window with the help of my local crafts store. I am now thirteen and have upgraded from a closet to a full-scale room in our new house. This sitting room has a reference to every single Holmes story. At antique malls and estate sales, I tracked down and created things like a harpoon (“The Adventure of Black Peter”), fake ears (“The Cardboard Box”) and a mounted bat (“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”). My grandma, aunt, uncle and assorted Sherlockian friends helped me build my collection and still do.
I contacted the curator at the University of Minnesota’s Library, which houses the largest Sherlock Holmes collection in the world! In full regalia, including deerstalker, Inverness cape, and pipe, I stepped into the collections and saw an original page from a Sherlock Holmes stories—in your handwriting. What an inspiration!
I have since performed in a reenactment of a 1940s Sherlock Holmes radio play (complete with sound effects), presented a toast honoring Colonel Sebastian Moran in front of a crowd of Sherlockians and written many of my own stories about Holmes and Watson. Now I am filming a Sherlock Holmes web series with my friends on YouTube. And all along I have been a member of a monthly study group called the Norwegian Explorers. We take a story from the canon and discuss its motifs and symbols, how its characters are portrayed and the reasons we love reading it again and again. At these meetings, I learn new ways of looking at the stories. My analytical and communication skills have improved, too.
Pretending that your works aren’t fiction, but true fact, is called “playing the game” and people have done this since the 1930s. Every three years, I play the game at a conference held at the University of Minnesota. Sherlockians come in all shapes and sizes, and I have met scientists, historians, doctors and lawyers from around the world connected by one thread: our love of your creation. With people older than me by decades, I have been in heated conversations about Watson’s middle name, which hand Holmes wrote with and many other wonderfully obscure details. In our world, age doesn’t matter; all that does is a love of your eternal stories.
I have seen Sherlockian nooks and crannies throughout the world. My family lived in Austria for two years. On our first trip out of Vienna we went to a London much different from yours but still, as you describe in “A Study in Scarlet,” with that bustling feel: ” … a great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” In London, we found the plaque inside Bart’s hospital marking the place where Holmes and Watson met for the first time, visited the Sherlock Holmes museum (which I had dreamed about seeing for so long) and snuck into the Criterion Bar to get a shot of where Watson ran into his friend Stamford, the man who introduced him to Sherlock Holmes.
On another journey, I made a pilgrimage to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, where Holmes and the evil Moriarty fought it out. As I look at pictures of myself, a smiling, deerstalker-wearing boy climbing up rocky terrain to the top of the falls, I realize something. Sherlock Holmes is one of the only things that I can say I loved as much at seven as I do now, six years later. I imagine myself in thirty years, fervently discussing Mrs. Hudson’s country of origin with a child of about my age now, and I know I will never stop enjoying Sherlock Holmes. While I will someday die, your works will live on forever, and maybe my grandchildren will enjoy and love the master detective as much as I do. Your books have even made me consider jobs in library science, teaching or writing.
The enduring and loyal friendship of Holmes and Watson, the feel of Victorian London, and the mysteries that keep me thinking, make your works timeless. Your creation has led to me filming a series, recreating 221B Baker Street, writing Holmes pastiches and meeting and spending time with friends who are all part of such a large, wonderful community. I have never felt this way about any other story or novel, and while many I read are good, none have held me or changed me as much as yours.
Sincerely and Canonically Yours,
Second Place (tie):
Elie Oxford, The Blake School, Hopkins
(Letter to A. A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh)
Dear Mr. A. A. Milne,
As a child, my mom frequently told me that by being curious and having the right attitude, I could be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do. Winnie the Pooh sparked a flame of curiosity inside of me that will never be put out. Filled with stories inside of itself, it is creative, funny and a large part of my childhood. When I was little, my mom would read me your books and stories every night. I was mesmerized. I remember sitting in bed, closing my eyes and just listening. My mom would read until I fell asleep, and then she would read another story the next night. We both share a love of reading, but this book holds a special place.
My younger brother and his best friend, Jude, were also great fans of your book The two were inseparable, and spent as much time together as they could. My parents were friends with Jude’s parents long before he was born, so I had always been around him. The two boys had been friends since they were infants, and had the mutual agreement to be friends forever. A quote that I often think of says, ‘”We’ll be friends forever, won’t we Pooh?’ Piglet says. ‘Even longer,’ Pooh answers.” This reminds me of their friendship and how important it is to have a bond with someone in your life like theirs.
However, Jude and his father were sadly both killed in a car accident on the way home from my family’s cabin. My dad and younger brother were a mere 20 minutes behind. Afterwards, the loss hit me like a bullet. I was extremely sad and felt like it was my fault. People sent us books on dealing with death at a young age, but I felt that yours was the most helpful. At first, I thought that the stories and quotes that I had been around would make me sad, but after reading the story about Pooh and Piglet trying to catch a Heffalump, I felt happy, reconnected, and remember laughing for the first time in a while.
I learned many life lessons by reading your book. It taught me how important it is to have a bond with someone in my life like Pooh and Piglet, and how to be happy like Tigger. I learned to be caring like Kanga and curious like Roo. I learned that there will be many problems in life, but it’s best to face them with a smile. I also discovered the recurring issue of trying to get honey from the bee’s nest is one that Pooh faced every day with a smile, song and never ending hope. Reading this message over and over gave me hope and courage. I now face my challenges from the big ones-like loss-to the small ones-like not being able to open my locker-with a smile and an optimistic attitude, and I could never be more grateful for this lesson.
“If there ever comes a day where we can’t be together, keep me in your heart and I’ll stay there forever.” -Winnie the Pooh
Samantha Stocking, The Blake School – Middle School, Hopkins
(Letter to Joy Hensley, author of Rites of Passage)
Dear Mrs. Hensley,
I share more than my first name with Samantha McKenna as I too have faced pressure because I am a girl in a male dominated world. Even though I excel in math and science, I have often had to endure criticism, rather than praise, for my achievements. I still remember the first time I was ashamed to be right. It happened when I was in fourth grade. I had been advanced to a sixth grade math class where I was placed in a group with five, sixth-grade boys. I remember sitting in the back of Mrs. Peterson’s classroom, working through a complicated math problem, and telling my answer to the group. As I said my answer, Matthew leaned over to Ben and said, “She is a girl. She has to be wrong. She can’t be good at math.” My teacher, who had overheard, grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him out of the room. I felt the heat come to my face, and my eyes started to tear up. I concentrated on my paper trying not to cry. My teacher came back into the room and looked at my paper. She told my group defiantly that my answer was right. This just made me feel even worse as I tried not to show my emotions on my face. It was the first time that I remember that being a female and being smart somehow felt wrong. Samantha in your book had to face and overcome societal expectations of being one of the first females to enter into the Denmark Military Academy. Her experiences echoed my thoughts of being an intelligent female in middle school today.
In Rites of Passage, you show that the challenges of being a minority female in a male-dominated school don’t end with being admitted, but are heightened by those who are threatened by female success. This is seen even in our society today where over fifty percent of our population is women, but we are still where we were ten years ago in terms of rights. There are so few women in industry. In an article I read about Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, it said that in the US women make up only fourteen percent of executive officers, eighteen percent of elected congressional officials, and 22 out of 197 heads of state, and as of now, no female has led the country as President. It’s terrible to see that women have made so little progress in the world where men control almost all aspects of life. People just like Samantha McKenna work to be seen as equals in society, yet there are still people like the “society” in the book who continually oppose it. Samantha showed strength as she fought for her rights as a female that not only do I personally believe in but have experienced firsthand.
How can I be like Samantha McKenna? How can I make a difference and overcome the obstacles in my path that have been put there because of my gender? Women’s rights is a century old issue that has transcended generations. You were able to help make a difference with your book, so how can I? Samantha fought against not only men who feared change but women, including her mother, who encouraged her to be the societal norm. 1 experience this expectation every day in middle school where it is considered better for girls to look pretty than to be smart. My middle school experiences show me that the popular kids value perfect hair, new clothes, and makeup rather than kindness, respect, or intelligence. In class they will not raise their hand or even try to get good grades, not because they can’t, but because they fear that they will be considered smart. Unfortunately, we aren’t fighting against just how males tend to treat us, but how we have learned to be as females and how we treat others.
When I read your book, I see myself in every page. I see the strength and perseverance of Samantha that I want to have. I see the struggles that women around the world have fought for and still need to overcome. I see a passion for change that you and I both posses, and above all, I see a book that is inspirational and relatable to my own life.
Garrett Synstelien, Minnetonka Middle School West, Minnetonka
(Letter to Dr. Seuss, author of Oh, the Places You’ll Go)
Dear Mr. Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss),
Congratulations! Today is your day! You sent me to great places and that’s where I’ll stay!
Because of your book, my head has expanded. Now dear Mr. Seuss, may I be quite candid?
All your rhythms and rhymes produce synapses in my brain, making information much easier to retain. The experts call it “mnemonics” and teach us the tricks; some tricks don’t work, but your tricks, they stick.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” gave me permission to dream. It reminded me I could choose but might oftentimes lose. I did lose last summer, I lost my batting swing. As the balls whizzed by me, only the whoosh of air would sing. But I did not worry, I did not stew. “Eyes on the ball” is what I knew to do. My bat finally hit the ball; it was off to great heights. It joined the high flyers until that fateful night. My bat lagged behind and it didn’t have speed. Your book taught me to keep trying. That’s what we all need.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” gave me permission to dream. It reminded me I could be best of the best and could top all the rest, except when I don’t, because sometimes I won’t. Last year I was not top of my class, as I had always been. I never knew I could fail until then. I entered a new school all eager and scared. For many of my classes, I was ill prepared. Although placed in Honors courses because of my skill, I often felt I was placed on a grill. I had to study and think, no longer sit around and eat and drink. I was left in a lurch on a prickle-ly perch in an unpleasant slump. Then I decided to throw my bad attitude into the dump. Your book told me to take chances and dare to fly high. You know what, Dr Seuss, I AM that kind of a guy!
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” gave me permission to dream. It reminded me of the waste of sitting around in the “Waiting Place.” At twelve years old I know I have time, but I also remember the tragic loss of a dear friend of mine. My beautiful kitty was only one. I woke up one morning to find he was done. The vet said it happens, it frequently will, and for my sweet Rocky, there was no pill. I know I couldn‘t save him but I still spent time hoping. Soon all the hoping just turned into moping. I was waiting for Rocky to return to play or maybe I was waiting for a sunnier day. I was waiting for my baseball game, or maybe I was waiting for a bunch of rain. My kitty was dead and that stunk a lot. But your book reminded me that the Waiting Place is not where I want to get caught.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” gave me permission to dream. I’m getting older now and am nearly a teen. I have many friends from both sports and school. Most of the time, I think I’m quite cool. But you know, I often feel all alone. You will frequently find me just playing on my phone. Though my house is full of people galore, many times I want to shout, “NO MORE!” My parents, just like the HakkenKraks howl and my brothers, oh well , they just growl. Around these strange birds I must step with great care. Whenever I look at them, they just stare! But your book reminded me, and I know it’s true; my head full of brains keeps me real cool.
So, this Balancing Act you call Life is readily remembered through all my life‘s strife. Your rhythms and rhymes swim in my head; I think of them every night before bed. Because of your book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go,“ I know my life will be just so. The synapses you connected in my brain have changed my life forever. Your words are so easy to retain. I thank you Dr. Seuss for the gifts that you gave. Your books have taught me and many children how to behave.
Your greatest fan,
2015 Level III Winners
Taylor Ogren, Mahtomedi High School, Mahtomedi
(Letter to Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake)
Dear Jhumpa Lahiri,
In my last summer before I am to be pushed out of my parents’ protective nest, I was assigned to read your book The Namesake for my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class. I believed there would be no personal value, no relevance to my own life within a book about immigrants of a very different culture. I naively believed the only gain from reading it would be full points on the summer reading assignment, at best.
As too many readers of my generation do, I judged the book based on the summary on the back cover. I assumed I would never be able to relate to the main character. I was raised in beliefs that did not conflict with American culture. There was no way a conflict between a traditional Indian family and the modern American culture could apply to my life experiences. I am ashamed to say these biases nearly kept me from completing more than a third of the book.
Suddenly, however, I realized something important. In that moment, I realized that the theme of this book echoed a theme from my life.
Just a week after my parents discovered my mother was pregnant with me, their fourth child, my father was almost killed. It was rush-hour on the freeway and my father was stopped in his car in the left lane, pulled slightly to the left in an attempt to see how far ahead of the semi in front of him the intensely slow traffic continued. For some unknown but prophetic moment, my father’s eyes flickered to his rem·view mirror. He caught a glance of a car racing 60 miles per hour. The driver was not even braking. The car ate up the distance, now nearing the halted vehicles in front of him. My father reacted quickly. He cranked his wheel left. The impact sent his car flying into the median. But he had avoided being crushed between the semi and the reckless driver. My father was seriously injured. No one, including his doctors, could believe he had lived. His head had hit the roof of the car, and he had also damaged his wrist and his spine so badly that they have caused him recurring pain in the years after the incident. In the end, the doctors realized that only the strength of his neck and back muscles had protected his life and prevented him from being paralyzed. My father says the set of golf clubs, TaylorMade® to be precise, in the trunk of his car saved him. Miraculously, despite being rear-ended, all but the now bent one iron survived the crash undamaged. My father tells me that when I was born and it was time to choose my name, he knew. He knew he had to name me Taylor, forever giving me the namesake of the golf clubs that he claims saved his life.
Like Gogol, I wondered if I reminded my father of that terrifying experience. Unlike him, however, I have always known the story behind my father’s choice in my name. Yet I have never found the courage to discuss this topic with my father, choosing simply to listen if he ever discusses the event. In my youngest years, the pain seemed not to have affected my father as much. He went to every activity I participated in; he sang with me and encouraged me to dream; he taught me about our faith and how much every little smile or compliment could brighten someone’s day. He taught me to listen to others and be firm in my beliefs, but never to blindly believe potentially biased information. He taught me how to grow as a person, how to work with others, and how to handle any obstacle in life. But most importantly, he danced with me. Neither of us were the best dancers, but that never mattered. He would lift me up in his arms and spin around the room, or just hold me up while he danced. My favorite was when he would twirl me throughout the room. In those moments, I felt invincible, happy; like nothing could take away the joy and love I had in my family.
But as I grew older, my father’s lingering pain began to interfere. We stopped dancing. He no longer attended my activities, no matter how nicely I asked or how many times I reminded him. He always told me that his back just hurt too much. We grew more distant; he focused too much on his pain. His wish to ease his constant aching only took him farther from me. Irrationally, I sometimes felt as if it was my fault he was left with so much lingering pain. I watched and worried silently; afraid I was losing my father and the close relationship I held so dear. I was even more afraid that talking about it would make it worse. I was afraid that if I spoke to him about my worries, he would become even more distant. I learned quickly to hide these worries in my aching heart. I concealed them with smiles and laughter and fa9ade of naivety. I pretended that nothing was wrong, that I was blind to the growing shadows in my life.
But then I read The Namesake, and I began to understand the character Gogo! and the choices both he and his father, Ashoke, made within the novel. Something about their story resonated within my soul. I will not deny that when I re-read Ashoke’s narrative of his accident, tears flooded my eyes. I could feel the panic in my father’s heart, the jarring sensation of flying through the air while trapped within a metal body. I could hear the scrunching of metal giving way. I could smell the burning scents of rubber, blood, and fear that saturate the worst of car accidents. I could feel the paralyzing shock that would inevitably give way to the pain. And so it was with intense focus that I read, and reread, and read once more the conversation between
Gogol and his father about the origin of Gogol’s name. I admired the courage in both Ashoke and Gogol to discuss the sensitive details of Ashoke’s train accident. But most of all, I admired Gogol’s ability to ask his father if he reminded him of the accident. It sparked a determination within me to speak to my own father, not just about my name, but about all the other worries that fill the static between us, too. Ashoke’s reassurance to Gogol, “You remind me of everything that followed,” gave me hope. It gave me hope that I could regain my close relationship with my father. It gave me hope that I could smile and laugh without needing a façade ever again. It gave me hope that we could dance again.
There are many more words I wish I could share with you, but there are no better words to describe how meaningful your book has become in my life. Thank you. You gave me hope. For that, I will forever be thankful.
Sarah Hinrichs, St. Michael-Albertville High School, St. Michael
(Letter to Emily Dickinson, author of Hope is a thing with feathers)
Dear Emily Dickinson,
Your poem, ‘”Hope’ is a thing with Feathers” reminded of me exactly that–hope–during the darkest of my days last summer. I was a caregiver for my sick grandfather, whose cancer had metastasized to his lungs. At first, I was just there to provide company as he was a widower, confined to a wheelchair. He taught me so many things like cooking, cribbage, and praying. In the end, it helped me to understand his best message to me–the importance of having hope.
It was a struggle watching him slowly fade; I tried my best to keep a cheerful face and attitude. But the day when he didn’t want to get out of bed broke my facade. Lying in bed, he started falling asleep while talking to me. He told me that he was done and didn’t want to do it anymore. He was so tired and weak, he couldn’t even pray. I let him sleep. I went into the other room and cried. That was the day hope stopped singing for me.
My hopelessness was a blanket that smothered me. At the end of the day, I lay my head not on a pillow, but on a monster of thoughts that broke my spirit. I knew it was important to stay positive–at least that is what the Hospice nurse said–so I plastered on a smile and choked back my tears each of the following dreadful days. He got weaker and weaker. Hope tried to utter just a single note, but it was smothered under my grief.
His last day came. I was relieved that he was no longer in pain and I took courage in the fact that his faith was so immense and enduring. Still, empty loneliness possessed my heart. I read your poem ‘”Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” and I realized something: In his suffering, my grandpa was trying to teach me that through all trials, one must have hope. He had hope from the day he was diagnosed to the day he died. You wrote in your poem “And never stops–at all–“. My grandpa never gave up on the little Bird and the hope it sang.
I realized that Grandpa wasn’t the only one facing an incredible trial; I was too. I watched him fade and grow weaker, finally dying in front of my eyes. Your poem captures these unforgettable moments of trial and tribulation. And through it all hope was singing. The storm was sore and the gale strong, yet hope’s sweetness was heard. I just didn’t always see or understand it.
That’s what your poem showed me: hope doesn’t depend on me being strong enough to notice it. Whether I hear it or not, hope is there, singing on the strangest of seas and in the chilliest of lands, warming my soul and never stopping. The little Bird doesn’t ask anything of me, yet it still sings on. It sings an enduring promise. Wherever I go and whatever trials I face, hope will be there singing the tune without the words and neverstopping. Your poem assures me that I too may become a bird that sings and sings and sings knowing I have wings while perched upon the unsteady boughs of life.
Anita Thammavongsa, St. Michael-Albertville High School, St. Michael
(Letter to Hope Solo, author of Solo: A Memoir of Hope)
Dear Hope Solo,
When I was younger, maybe five or six years old, I often tagged along with my father to his soccer games. He was a five-foot-five, stocky weight lifter with a booming voice who managed to pass being a goalkeeper. Actually, he must’ve been a pretty good goalie because every team in his adult league wanted him to guard their nets. Well, at least that’s what he told me. And ever since I watched him fly and dive into swarms of cleats just to grab a ball, I knew exactly what sport-and which position-! wanted to play. So when my family moved to the small yet growing suburb of St. Michael-Albertville, Minnesota, I immediately asked if I could play soccer. The next summer, I dirtied my white, long socks and knocked soccer balls on some green, grassy fields. Somehow, I always found myself in front of the nets, trying to swat shots away’ instead of kicking them like most little kickers. I’ve played soccer since then, and I’ve always found myself standing in goal. In one way or another, it was “in my genes.” Whatever was coached or taught to me, I learned it with ease: diving at the right time, reading my opponents’ movements, seeing the runs and angles, communicating with my teammates, staying calm in moments of high pressure. All the little details a ninth-grade goalkeeper could hope to excel in, I had them, and I didn’t have to try too hard. I had built up a lot of self-esteem. Then the summer before my sophomore year came, when I thought my soccer career would end with an elbow dislocation.
I didn’t cry at all when I felt the shooting pains rip through my arm. I didn’t cry because I wanted to show people that I still had pride in me even though I wore a bionic brace. In truth, I was scared. I couldn’t tell the nurses, doctors, or even my parents at the hospital when I was operated on. When I found out I couldn’t play for the upcoming school season, I became the varsity manager, but it just wasn’t the same. When my orthopedic doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to play the same way I did before, I nearly broke down inside, but continued my calm facade. I was becoming reclusive to my friends and family, and I found a kind of refuge in academics. That was when, during the school season, that I was assigned to read a non-fiction piece, and I took this as an opportunity to venture into your autobiography, Solo: A Memoir of Hope.
I chose to read your book because I thought “Hey, I watched her and the U.S. national women’s team win the Olympics, and she just released an autobiography. Why not read it now?” I half-expected your book to be boring because it was a non-fiction book, but I soon concluded I was wrong. As I read it, I learned that one of the best goalkeepers in the world has incredible perseverance in spite of obstacles that stand in her way. What really made me identify with your book is the fact that it was written in your perspective, not in third-person. I empathized with your struggles and thoughts because they were similar to my own frustrations at the time, but were simply printed in the words I couldn’t find to express: “Would I ever be able to use my arm again? … What if my career was over? What would I do with my life? … If I couldn‘t play, who was I?” (Solo 96). When I first read those lines after your forearm injury, I literally nodded to myself because I realized that someone else understood what I was going through. As I continued further into your autobiography, you pushed through that injury and other struggles in your life.
Reading about your life, sure enough, gave me hope (no pun intended). Not the kind of hope of eventual desire-the desire to play soccer again-but the kind of hope that allows me to aim somewhere, the kind that pushes me to achieve something: A goal. Throughout the book, your goal was to play at your highest level. So after I had recovered and was given permission to return to soccer, I set out to be a better goalkeeper than I was before. In the winter, I trained indoors. In the spring, I joined my school’s track team to condition. In the summer, I prepared myself for the next school season. One year after my injury, my efforts eventually paid off during school tryouts: I became the varsity goalkeeper, surpassing the senior goalkeeper most players believed would’ve been chosen. The season went well, but we lost one game away from state. One more season left, and that would be the end of my high school career. Finally, senior year came. I was the starting goalie once again, and it was the best season I’ve ever had. The practices and my teammates were all fun and comical, but we knew when to be serious and our chemistry was nearly spot-on every game. We defeated our rivals and even went to state, a highlight of my senior season. In the state tournament, my school was the underdogs, the smallest school compared to those in the metropolitan area. The night before our first state game, I picked up your book one more time to calm my nerves. Game day arrived. We lost. But I didn’t regret anything because there was a quote that kept reappearing in my mind: “There was more to me than just being a soccer player. I had made myself into a great player. I could make myself into something else if I needed to. I had other talents. Even without soccer, I could make my way in the world” (Solo 97). I’ve become the player I wanted to be, and my next step was to set a new goal in life.
In times of struggles, sometimes it takes a person outside of one’s family or social circle to understand oneself. In my case, it took you, another soccer player, to help me push through my injury. Sometimes it just takes another soccer player to just understand a soccer player. Your book not only motivated me to be a better player, but it also taught me that anything in life can be achieved through great efforts.
Today, I no longer strive to be a stellar goalkeeper but to go to college. To do that, I have to be a better student. I’ve already had some academic success, but “easy” won’t make the cut any longer. I continue to challenge my limits in schoolwork. Of course, there will always be some sort of setback in my studies, but with the words of Hope Solo resonating in my mind, I’ve learned to become persistent and resilient to reach my goals.
Your book was and will always be much more than an autobiography to me. It helped me get back on my feet after an injury that was eating me mentally. It also motivated me to aim to be a better player. But overall, you helped me understand that not everything will come easily; with the hard work, passion, and drive, I can do nearly anything I set my mind to. For that, I thank you.
I’ll be cheering for you whenever you’re on the field!
2014 Level I Winners
Nathan Behrens, Parkview Center School, Roseville
Dear Barbara Joosse,
Bright and brilliant bikes, cocoa mugs, windbreaker jackets, backpacks, fuzzy blankets, and Christmas stockings! One set sapphire blue as billowy sky, and one set ruby red as rocketship fire. One for my brother, one for me. How did you know? Of course, you wrote I Love You the Purplest for all brothers and sisters. Though, it seems as if you wrote your warm and wonderful book just for my family. This is the reason it holds mystery and magic for me! As far back as my memory can reach, our favorite colors have coded Nicholas’ and my lives. Since that time of beginning stories, your words “I love you the bluest! I love you the reddest!” have reassured me. No matter what, similar or different, separate or together, my brother and I would always be equally loved.
Your story of childhood first came to me in my cozy home, at bedtime. Starry night after starry night, your message of uniqueness and acceptance closed the day and covered my brother and me like a soft, colorful quilt: Each and every child has worth. You wrapped me in comfort and confidence. As we grew, summer evenings at our “sturdy cabin” became our favorite time and place to read I Love You the Purplest. In this special space of woods and water, your book came alive and connected to my own life experiences. Here, my brother and I could understand and be part of the Earth, like Julian and Max. Exploring nature, swimming, canoeing, and fishing when “the moon glowed on one side of the lake … and the sun shimmered on the other.” Here, we could discover the quiet and the adventure to match our distinct personalities and passions.
Just as Julian’s and Max’s boots wander through your story, Nicholas and I walk through every watercolor page with parallel blues and reds. Our interests in the world are so much alike, but we are so different in our approach to it. Nicholas observes and soaks it in. I run and take a flying leap! Nicholas is slow and steady, contemplative and careful. He expresses patience like Julian’s “long, velvety sigh.” I am bubbling and bursting, vibrant and quick. I express joy like Max’s “big, thundery laugh.” Sometimes our differences lead to grumbles and rumbles. Then, your wise guidance reflects my own family’s values. We try to respect and appreciate each other as individuals. My parents’ love for us helps our relationship become stronger. When my brother and I blend harmoniously as a new color, purple, we bring out the best in both of us. We become each other’s most treasured friend.
Ms. Joosse, I Love You the Purplest is a beautiful book that remarkably mirrors my brother and me. However, your story is most importantly an affirmation for families everywhere. Your gentle words show us that we can love and be loved equally, but differently. We can respect the differences and celebrate the uniqueness of others … all of the blues, reds, yellows, greens, and purples. We can find commonalities that bring us together in a glorious rainbow. I am grateful that your book came into my life. It will always have a significant place in my heart.
Alemu Slattery, Great River School, St. Paul
Dear Gary Paulsen,
Your book, Tucket’s Travels, helped me to understand my own life experiences. When I was living in Ethiopia, the conditions were similar to the book, but Tucket had a gun and a horse and I didn’t. I had to survive with hyenas, mean vultures, and travel 5 miles from my home to get clean water. I had to collect firewood from far away. It was hard finding food and good water. We had to finish our work before sunset. It was important to do these tasks before the wild animals came out or we could be killed.
Your book helped me to remember how thankful I am not to have to live in those harsh conditions anymore. It helped me to understand when you are trying to survive under harsh conditions it is crucial to follow a sequence when executing a plan. For example, two men robbed Tucket because he failed to follow the sequence for survival that Mr. Grimes had taught him. This story profoundly helped me understand my life in Ethiopia.
My job was to get water twice a day. After reading Tucket’s Travels, I realized why my parents didn’t allow me to put it off. Our lives would have been difficult and possibly in danger, if I had goofed off and hadn’t done my job. Without water, my family couldn’t cook food. In the 100° heat, we would become thirsty, weak, and possibly even sick. If we became weak and sick, we could not get our jobs done for the day, ultimately putting our safety and our lives at risk.
Tucket and I are similar in some ways. We both went through hard stuff when we were young. We share some strengths – creativity, curiosity, and we both take risks. Tucket and I have kind hearts. Tucket and I also share a flaw. We are both easily distracted. Like Tucket, sometimes, my brain focuses on one object I find fascinating; I ignore what is important to do at the time.
Your book was also meaningful to me because of the way you wrote it. It is easy to understand, not complicated with big, fancy words. Your clear writing helped me imagine riding a horse, shooting at enemies, and trapping with Grimes. When I was in Ethiopia, I lived in one place but Tucket had to move around a lot. I was impressed by how he covered his tracks and how careful he was at night. He must have had to pack so little when traveling so much. He could only pack what was necessary, not a big suitcase! Now everything is easier. When I think of what would be cool to bring instead of what I need to bring, I am a little shocked at how picky I have gotten since living in America. It was challenging in Africa, and now my life is so much easier.
Third Place (tie):
Lauren Phillips, Chapel Hill Academy, Chanhassen
Dear Jenny L. Cote,
My mom always tells me to be polite, so I should probably introduce myself. I’m Lauren Phillips, and I love books! (Shh… don’t tell anybody, but I often raid my older brother’s room looking for books to devour.) My reading level is 12.5. (I’m in 6th grade.) I would love to credit my reading skills to myself, but the credit has to go to God. Okay, down to business. The biggest part of my life (of course) is reading. I absolutely love reading. When I search for books to read, I often skip over the thin books and make a beeline for the big, fat, heavy books. From the time I read the first sentence to the ending word in The Ark, the Reed, and the Fire Cloud, I was totally captivated.
Talk about opening a new world! As soon as I opened the cover, I felt as if I was actually there trekking the long journey from Scotland to the ark with Max. As I was melded into the story, I found that there were many life lessons. One of them is to choose your friends carefully. When Max chose Charlie the snake as his friend, I thought, That was a good choice. I have had many friends that acted like they were my true friends. On the outside, they were really delightful. They were like Charlie when he pushed Max out of the way of the falling sack and saved him. Sometimes my friends have done things that made me even more sure that they’re my true friends. However, they only wanted to use me as a tool for their own personal gain. Some ‘friends’ told me, “I’ll be your friend if you do this.” Then when I did that thing, that ‘friend’ would often walk away and join up with some other person as if I didn’t exist. After reading your brilliant book, I chose carefully again, and now I have a group of reliable friends.
Another important thing that The Ark, the Reed, and the Fire Cloud taught me is that you eventually have to let things go. It was hard for Liz to leave her garden, as it was hard for me to leave my home. I used to live in California. I was heart-broken when my dad switched jobs and my family and I moved to Minnesota. I was miserable when I had to leave my best friend. But now I have settled in Minnesota well, and my friend and I still have a long-distance relationship. Yet, I still have a problem with letting things go. My closet used to be overflowing with cute shirts and sweatshirts several sizes too small for me. My closet has recently been bursting with clothes. Not long after I turned 12, my mom told me that I had to go through my closet. Well, I did, and now I feel much better with my now spacious closet. I kept my favorite shirts to put in a memory box. Now my messy room is free from unneeded bookcases, toys, and cheap playthings.
After reading your book, I now think before I speak, give up things more easily, and choose my friends carefully. The Ark, the Reed, and the Fire Cloud has impacted my life greatly. I am eagerly waiting for The Wind, the Road, and the Way to come out in 2014!!!!!!!!
Your biggest fan,
P.S. Congratulations! The Ark, the Reed, and the Fire Cloud is the only book that has made me cry! After I had to go to bed, I lay awake all night crying over Liz dying.
– – –
Third Place (tie):
Noelle Wang, Friendly Hills Middle School, Mendota Heights
Dear Michael Pollan,
My name is Noelle and I am eleven years old. I live with my mom, dad, younger sister and two dogs. Everyone in our family eats mostly organic, including our dogs and walking stick insects.
Last summer, I read the young reader’s edition of your book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat. I wasn’t too sure about the book when my mom first brought it home, but I decided to give it a try. I ended up learning many new things about our food and how its production affects our world.
One thing that surprised me is that corn is a main ingredient in the average American diet. I had no idea that it was in so many foods and drinks! I also learned that industrial food is not efficiently made or shipped. It wastes so much food and energy without feeding many people. As a nature-lover and tree-hugger, I was appalled.
Besides improving my knowledge of different types of food, your book also changed the way I think about the food that I eat. I sometimes find myself reading a food label, just to find out its ingredients. I am not looking longingly at the Oreos, chips, and soda anymore. Now, I think about the farmer that had to grow the corn in these products, and how little he or she was paid.
From reading your book, I also understand why my parents make the food choices that that they do. I also understand why my mom is a vegetarian (a lacto-ovo one, as I learned from your book). When my sister and I were little, we would offer her a piece of 100% organic salami and be confused when she refused it. It was organic, right?
The main reason why my mom is a vegetarian is because of the way many of the animals are treated. At the time she stopped eating meat, she could not buy humanely raised meat at a grocery store. After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I asked my mom if I could try being a vegetarian for a month, and she said okay. I tried, but it did not work. I just couldn’t resist those campfire-roasted hot dogs (humanely raised, of course!)
While reading your book, I realized that many young people and adults probably don’t know what is in their food. Most people just eat it, not stopping to think about how it was made, or what it is made of. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is very meaningful to me. I believe it could change our future. We have the power to stop food-related medical conditions such as diabetes and obesity, and we can distribute food to places where there is not a lot of food. We could even out the imbalance of food consumption, and farm in a way that will preserve our planet.
Since reading your book, I have been paying attention to these food problems, and how people are trying to solve them. In reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I realized that I am fortunate to have many healthy food choices that other people may not. There is a Whole Foods Market not too far away and a local co-op even closer. Your book shows people how to be closer to their food, and how to really enjoy it.
With great admiration and many thanks,
2014 Level II Winners
Noah Visness, ESCHEL Home School Cooperative, St. Paul
Dear Miss Alcott,
Sliding down banisters. Making clubs. Heading out fishing. Racing around the house. These words describe Plurnfield, but they also describe a place where I would love to live. Little Men is one of the best books I have ever read. Reading about how the boys owned animals and gardens gave me the desire to be able to grow food and sell it or earn money in other ways. Reading about the boys’ innocence made me want to preserve my own innocence as long as possible. After reading Little Men I think it would be awesome to live at a boarding school, especially one on a farm. Little Men has inspired my thinking and my actions.
I have always wanted to own something that I have to take care of. When I read about Tommy’s chickens, I felt jealous. I have owned a few fish, but all I did was feed them and clean out their tank. I certainly didn’t sell their eggs for a quarter a dozen! It would be fun to have a garden similar to the ones the kids have at Plumfield. If I had one, I would plant green beans. Freshly grown beans are the best, and I bet they would taste even better if I had worked to produce them. Owning something would give me a sense of satisfaction.
I also appreciated the innocence in Little Men. Reading about Teddy’s poem that he wrote for composition day made me smile. He was so innocent! It was special how you changed the words in the poem so that they were how Teddy would say them, such as “okum” instead of “ocean.” I want to remain innocent as I grow up. I have a club with my neighbors, and we do things such as make little boats or cars. When we finish making something we earn badges, which are actually bottle caps. We keep a log of everything we do! In our club, we try to find creative things to do like the boys at Plumfield. I hope doing creative activities will help preserve my innocence. Instead of trying to fit in or grow up, I’m just trying to focus on being a boy.
Home is my favorite place, so I never thought attending a boarding school would appeal to me. After reading Little Men, I think it would be fun to live at Plumfield. The boys are so kind and it’s even on a farm! Living on a farm would open up so many possibilities for activities. You would have acres of land on which to explore, run, climb, and be adventuresome. We live by a little forest and a pond, but we’re not allowed to do anything in the forest and the pond has tons of algae. I want to build a tree house but we don’t have a tree that would work. If I lived at Plumfield, I would be able to do all so1ts of fun activities!
Thank you so much for creating Plumfield. It has inspired me. After reading this book, I want to have a way to make money. I have made a lemonade stand, sold some of my things at a garage sale, and done some extra chores around the house for some profit. To preserve my innocence, I have tried doing playful, creative things. For example, my neighbors and I built a styrofoam boat and sailed it on a nearby pond. I want to have the same kind of freedom that the boys had at the boarding school. All of the fun things the boys do at Plumfield sound wonderful to me. Activities such as huckleberry picking and making museums describe Plumfield. If I could live in any sort of place I wanted, such inventive, productive activities would definitely be a part of that place.
Noah Visness, Grade 7
Second Place (tie):
Caroline Bowen, Our Lady of Grace, Edina
Dear Markus Zusak,
Last year my mother recommended that I read The Book Thief. I must admit I was afraid to continue reading the book when I realized it was set during World War II. Both my grandmother and grandfather had lived through the Nazi occupation of Europe and rarely spoke of their lives during that time. I worried that they had experienced similar horrors as those imposed upon the characters in your book. The treatment of the Jewish prisoners, as well as the people who tried to help them, was unimaginable to me. Your book opened my eyes to the horror of war and the commitment that it takes to stand by your beliefs in the face of death.
Narrated by Death, each character’s story became almost real and made me curious about my grandmother’s life during this time. I finally summoned the courage to question her. She was a teenager during the war and was forced to live in the kitchen of her home with her mother, sister and nephew, because a Nazi officer occupied her house. She worked for four years as his housekeeper. Late one night, she heard a faint knock on the window and was terrified to find abandoned children begging for food. Their parents had been deported to camps and they were left to die on the streets of the city. My grandmother demanded that they feed the starving children. My great-grandmother protested; knowing that they would not eat the next day, would put themselves in great danger if caught and would only prolong the suffering of the homeless children. Like the Hubermanns, my grandmother remained resolute, risked death and fed the children for several days until they ceased coming. I was amazed that a diminutive, soft-spoken woman, such as my grandmother could summon so much courage. I wondered if I would ever have the same resolve in life.
At times I had to put the book down, because death was everywhere and I could not believe how people suffered and witnessed such terrifying acts of violence. At the end of your book, I finally realized its true message: that it is possible to live a life based on the Golden Rule even in the midst of inhumanity. In fact, for some people it only strengthened their resolve. Your book was not about death, but about how to live life. At the end of the war, the Nazi officer, who kept my grandmother’s family imprisoned for years, lost his family in a bomb raid. She and her family sincerely sympathized with him and tried to console him in his grief. My grandmother always quotes Albert Einstein, “A life lived for others is the only life worth living.” I realize that when Death comes to my grandmother (hopefully not any time soon), her soul will be as light as Liesel’s and Hans Hubermann’s, because they gave freely of themselves. Your book allowed me to adopt your humanitarian message as my own philosophy of life.
Thank you Mr. Zusak for writing The Book Thief and turning a frightening episode in my family’s history into a profoundly meaningful opportunity to learn how to
Second Place (tie):
Sarah Chute, The Blake School – Middle School, Hopkins
Dear Mr. John Green,
Your novel The Fault in Our Stars made me ask myself a question that I didn’t want to think about: If I were to die tomorrow who would be affected? Would I want them to be?
Since the day last summer when I put down your thought provoking novel The Fault in Our Stars, it has inspired me to change my lifestyle. The main character Hazel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, had a way of thinking that made me question how I interact with the people in my life. She tried to distance herself from everyone close to her in order to not hurt them if and when she died. In doing this, she ended up making her friends and family grow more attached to her. This is what made me wonder if I would want the people close to me to be affected by my death. My answer was complicated. I would sincerely hope that no one’s life would be jerked to a sudden halt, the way some people’s lives are as they react to the passing of someone they love. At the same time, it would be comforting to know that people would be missing me and that my life would have had an impact on somebody. Also, I would not want anyone to struggle with feeling sorry for something that had happened prior to my death. If I were to die tomorrow, there would be people with whom I have had arguments or unsettled business that I would wish I could make things right with, but I would not want them to feel guilty for not fixing our relationship. I switched to a new school two years ago. The day I began my first year at my current school, I unintentionally forgot about my friends from my old school, even though we still were in close enough in proximity to be able keep in touch. They may not have been hurt or affected by this abandonment of our friendship, but it is likely that the first thing they remember about me is how suddenly connections between us were dropped. That is not the last memory I would want anyone to have of me if I were to be gone by tomorrow. This realization has made me strive to maintain friendships and to mend past arguments.
I was intrigued by your character Augustus Waters, who has been stuck in my mind for months now. His positive attitude in the novel has inspired me to live in the moment with everything I do. His situation is much different than mine is, he being a cancer patient, and I being a healthy 14 year-old girl, but that makes no difference in whether I aim to mimic his behavior or not. No matter what is going on in his personal situation he is always engrossed in Hazel and the rest of the characters’ problems with no mention of his own. He reminds me of my grandmother, who has endured many painful surgeries in her lifetime, but each and every time I talk to her, our conversations are focused on my life. Together, the two of them motivate me to dwell less on my own issues and to listen to what others have to say. They are both incredibly strong people and it is my goal to be as kind and non self-absorbed as they are. I do not know what it would be like to have cancer. No one really can know, unless they actually are diagnosed with it. Predicting exactly how my life would change if I were to develop cancer is impossible. I can only guess that it would be a drastic difference. The way that you describe Hazel in her pre-cancer years seems reflective of my own life, but the Hazel after she has been through so much is an entirely different person from me. Reading about how she changed scared me. It made me worried for two reasons. One is that if I were to go through as much as she did, would I completely lose my personality and everything that makes me who I am? And two, in the case that I would not have a dramatic change in lifestyle because of cancer or another disease, what might I miss in my life that could make me a better person? Either way my options could both end badly, but I will try to be as positive as Augustus always is and hope I can make my life the best it can possibly be.
Mr. Green, your book made such an impact on my life and the way I think about myself. Thank you for changing the way I treat people and for showing me how to listen. I hope that one day I will affect someone else the way that you and your novel has affected me.
Riley Wentink, Chaska Middle School West
Dear George Orwell,
We live in a very troubled time, faced by unprecedented issues that are the flag-bearers of the twenty-first century. A time riddled with lies and deception. A time where the misleading phrase “…with liberty and justice for all” is questioned. The problems of the world today have always baffled me; I can never understand why the greatest enemy of the human race seems to be itself. We have become an apathetic group of people. If something doesn’t affect us as an individual, it doesn’t matter. Countries once dedicated to the defense of others now only defend if it benefits them. Why can’t we all open our eyes and see that we are all human? We are all equal human beings that deserve to be free. Why is freedom restricted from some and given to others? This is an issue that has become a common theme in politics. Seeking an answer, I turned to your book, 1984.
At first I thought it would be just another story with a predictable ending, an enjoyable book and nothing more. As I read, I discovered the world of 1984 seemed familiar, frighteningly familiar. It is the world we live in today, predicted to occur in the year 1984. Your book showed me what would become of our world if we continue to live the way we do. We walk a path that will end in our destruction; our apathy and stubbornness will cause our fall. 1984 functioned as a lens for my mind, a way to critically view the modern world.
It was a crystal ball in which I could see into the near future. When I read about the citizens of Oceania, the citizens of my own nation flashed through my mind: apathetic about the struggles of our neighbors and judgmental about those who are different from us. In your book, people were taught to view a certain ethnicity as the enemy. I now notice this more in my daily life; the way the media portrays certain ethnic groups as terrorists, illegal immigrants, or violent criminals. It is a subconscious idea hardwired in our brains, a fear that rests deep within our minds. Your book showed where this xenophobic attitude would take us: to complete isolation from the outside world with no one to come to our aid. I have always felt the desire to look past physical appearance and see people as the equal human beings they are. 1984 strengthened this desire by showing me the consequences of prejudice and stereotypes.
This book was a form of relief for me. It let me know I am not the only one who worries about the future of our civilization, much like Winston Smith who found Goldstein’s book and felt a sense of relief to know he was not insane. Your writing touched me in a way different than other books. It made me want to take action, to prevent a Big Brother from rising to power. It helped fuel fire that has been burning within me for years. A fiery passion, one that will not allow me to rest until every being on this planet can stand and say, “I am free.” The freedom to love, the freedom to speak, the freedom to choose, and the freedom to deviate from the majority. All of these freedoms were denied to the citizens of Oceania, and Winston thought every human being deserved them. I think so too.
Winston wanted to write a journal for the future generations of mankind to tell them about freedom and how they can achieve it. He wanted them to know what is right and what is wrong. Mr. Orwell, that was your mission as well. You wanted future generations to know what could potentially happen if we lose sight of the common good. Since reading 1984 I adopted the same mission, except I don’t speak to the future generations. I speak to the present day. I speak to the adults who govern this country and the kids in my school. We are the future generation you wrote your book for and your book gave us two options. We can either accept the lies of society, or strive to bring truth, liberty, and justice to planet earth. Because of 1984, I choose the latter.
With much thanks,
2014 Level III Winners
Larissa Bohler, St. Michael-Albertville High School, St. Michael
Dear Mr. Asher,
Despite the countless pieces of literature I have read throughout my life, none have gripped me as intensely as Thirteen Reasons Why. As I read this novel I shed many tears, and the story of Hannah Baker ran parallel in my head with the story of one of my closest friends.
I met my best friend “Kayla” the summer of eighth grade. In many ways I was similar to Clay, as I watched her struggle with depression and fall into a dark pit of unhappiness that I didn’t know how to help her out of. Every time I thought she was doing better, something or someone caused her to retreat deeper into herself.
The topic of suicide is not comfortable. Although many schools and commercials try to educate about it, there’s only so much pamphlets can do. I was grateful for the realistic way you wrote your story. It wasn’t censored and it didn’t end cleanly. I feel like these types of stories are the only way that people can actually see the reality of what some teens go through.
I watched my best friend struggle through each day and I was so angry about it. I saw her as a wonderful person who was there for me through the good and the bad, yet other people only saw the rumors. She was good at brushing off the kids’ comments from my school. They said she was a lesbian, secretly a guy, a liar who cut herself for attention. It was so ridiculous what bored teenagers could come up with. Even her mother had nothing nice to say. All I saw was her great qualities. She was my marching band geek who cooked delicious meals out of gross foods like sauerkraut and lived to make everyone happy but herself.
Her smile dimmed as time went on, and no one else saw it. Often times I received calls in the middle of the night. She cried because she didn’t know how she could keep going on. Angry cuts appeared on her arms that she covered up with sleeves. Her mom only became meaner to her. I began to lie awake at night and pray that my reassuring words on the phone were enough to keep her going for just one more day. I was so terrified that one day I’d get to school and hear the announcements say that my best friend ended her life.
I didn’t tell anyone for months because I was afraid it would embarrass her and make her angry with me, but one day it became too much. I forced myself to go to the guidance office in my high school. After I got everything out, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. My counselor reassured me that she would help both me and
Kayla deal with things.
Kayla was angry at first until things got better. Time went on and the school helped her move away from her mom to live with her dad. She was hours away from me, and I missed her everyday. She graduated and moved out and got a job. I can now hear the happiness radiating in her voice when she calls. Her arms are free from cuts, although
the scars are still there. Some people may view her scars as moments of weaknesses, but they truly are testaments of her strength.
When I read Thirteen Reasons Why I cried because I could have been Clay. I could have lost my best friend if I had chosen not to help her fight her reasons. Although your story was fiction, it was the most realistic piece of literature I’ve ever read. It showed me how turning a blind eye can be deadly, and it showed me that other people have seen the pain of losing someone in such a harsh and unexpected way.
Kayla and Hannah Baker’s stories had different endings. If the people in their lives had made different choices, Hannah could have lived or Kayla could have died. It gives me hope when I see how other people are working to educate teens about the terrible consequences that careless words and actions can cause. Thank you for writing about something that others may not have the courage to speak up about, and I hope your
book gives others the courage to speak as well.
Meckenna Woetzel, Blaine High School, Blaine
I was shocked at the words you wrote on paper in your book Night. It was appalling and disturbing. In fact, I was left stunned by the bluntness of your language. The image of babies being burned is still etched in my memory. You were unafraid to go to the places that most would shy away from because it makes them uncomfortable. Well, I will tell you something – I was uncomfortable. And I think that is why this piece is so excruciatingly beautiful. You left nothing. You didn’t sugar-coat the Holocaust, and you said it exactly like it was.
In your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech you said something – something very striking and, perhaps, slightly stinging to the conscience of the world. In response to your younger self you said, “I [explained] to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent.” And as I read your book I realized how prevalent this state of neutrality is as an epidemic throughout the world. So many times throughout my reading I just wanted to scream “Do something!” Yet, we didn’t. In one portion of Night you recalled the nearing of the Red Army and “the-Red-Cross negotiating-our-liberation” (80) rumors that spread throughout your camp, and yet most Holocaust
victims felt that they had “more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone [had] kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people” (81). The world remained silent. And this silence did not simply end with the Holocaust. Quite the opposite. After reading your book my eyes were truly opened to the injustices of this world that we somehow find ways to ignore. My heart breaks when I hear the horrific statistics on human trafficking, the AIDS epidemic, and even sexual violence against women in war. Sure, there are organizations that put all of their efforts into eradicating these injustices (by all means, credit where credit is due), but, as a whole, the world has not stood up to these epidemics. Some benefit far too much, others far too fearful, ignorant, or even neutral to take a stand. Instead, our world is glossed, sugar-coated. I flip on the TV; I don’t see problems. I see happiness, joy, smiles. It’s as if we want to live in this state of comfort. I mean, ignorance is bliss, right? If we are ignorant to the problems, well, then they really are not there. Elie Wiesel, you wrote the opposite. This world is not problem-free. It is filled with pain and suffering, and you were both bold and blunt about this idea. We can no longer be ignorant. And as you said in your speech, the world has to take a stand, to pick a side, to interfere, to lend a voice because “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
In the Preface to Night you questioned why you even wrote this book. You said, “I am not so naive as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of this world. Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow” (xiii). Well, I will have to disagree with you. This book still has that power because I will wake up tomorrow, and I will not be silent. Night was not just a call to the neutral world but to the individual as well – me. You even said this once, “One person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King Jr. – one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” I am not going to lie. My reaches of influence throughout this world are considerably small, and when I consider this idea of life and death, I am still doubtful I could be someone’s savior. It just seems unlikely at this point of my life. However, you still got me thinking about where I stand neutral. I live in Anoka Hennepin District 11 in Minnesota, where Rolling Stone named us a “suicide cluster” due to immense amounts of bullying. And the subtle ways kids my age are getting bullied seem to go unnoticed by so many. But, since reading Night, I have stood up for others, I’ve lent them a hand, and made them feel appreciated and needed in this world. It’s small, almost insignificant, but it doesn’t matter. I’m picking a side – the tormented.
Night also lit an overwhelming passion for those that do not have a voice to speak. I think again on human trafficking, but I now question, “How can I get involved?” I’ve also gotten involved in The Forgotten Initiative since reading your book – an organization focused solely on improving the conditions of the American foster care system where children are getting lost, abused, and hurt in this system. I’ve joined a prayer group where I dedicate time to lift up the mental, physical, and emotional needs of these kids. You have inspired me to get involved and to stand up for those far less fortunate than I am. And, although I am young right now, I know and deeply desire to volunteer for an international or national organization that throws itself into the injustices and needs of the voiceless because this is something I am passionate about. The sole reason you wrote Nightwas to lend a voice to the victims of the Holocaust and to keep their memory alive because if we forget, we become accomplices to the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Oppressors want us to forget the plight of the victims, but it is my duty as an individual to defy just that. In the closing portion of your speech you inspired me beyond words: “What all these victims need above all else is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours.” Elie Weisel, you inspired me to give of my voice. It now belongs to all of those who need me desperately.
And I thank you for that.
Meghana Iyer, Valley View Middle School, Edina
Dear Mr. Alexie,
Let me put it straight out there. I felt a connection with your book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I lived the book. I felt that it was literally a story about my life. No matter how cheesy it sounds, I just would like to thank you for helping me come to terms with who I am. Throughout my life, I have fought an identity battle, always unsure of which side is going to win in deciding who I really am. One side of the fight is an Indian, whose parents are from India, where Indian cultures and values are always emphasized in their life. The other side is an American, whose life has revolved around the States from birth. To put it more simply, I was born here, in America, but my parents are from India. That makes me an Indian by heritage but American by birth. My parents have made sure to instill the Indian culture and tradition in my life, but because we live in the U.S., I have naturally become accustomed to several American values and traditions. At home, I put on an Indian accent and at school, I speak with an American accent. In one setting, I’m Indian and in another, I’m American. It is as if I live in two different worlds. It’s an identity crisis!
When I first picked up your book, I didn’t know what to expect. I read the summary on the back of the book and found it quite amusing (especially the part where it said that Junior was the only Indian in his new school aside from the school’s mascot!). I thought that it would be a great outside reading book, a way for me to simply spend the long, boring days of summer. But as I read your book, I realized that there was so much more to the seemingly lighthearted and occasionally amusing words. Each word was imbued with a much deeper meaning and message than what was physically written on the page. It took me quite a while to comprehend what that message was. As I sat on my bed, trying to understand what that message was, it suddenly dawned on me that this message applies directly to my life! It was a huge realization.
For me, that message, the huge realization that dawned on me was about the obstacles that are overcome by Junior during his year at Reardan High. Reardan, an all-white high school, is the school that Junior chooses to go to in order to chase his dreams and live out his ambitions. He doesn’t want to waste away all the potential he has by living on the reservation and becoming a drunkard, like many other Indians. That is quite a bold decision, and he is faced with many difficulties along the way including coming to terms with who he becomes. He experiences a change in identity where he feels like “two different people inside of one body.” On the reservation, he is Junior the Indian. At Reardan, he is Arnold and something less than an Indian, more like a part-time Indian.
Despite these times of hardship, Junior learns to rise above all problems that he is faced with. How? He realizes that depending on other people and things in life truly help in overcoming personal obstacles. For example, he finds solace in drawing humorous cartoons. His friends both new and old help Junior realize that he does belong somewhere. His family inspires and supports him throughout his journey in Reardan. By depending on his family, friends, and cartoons, while maintaining a positive outlook on life, Junior is able to find success.
However, success is a very broad term that describes all that Junior discovers in his life. In general, don’t you think that success is a rather generic term? What is it measured by? Is it determined by one’s wealth? Or is it characterized by one’s achievements as an individual? For Junior, the obstacles he faces and overcomes in Reardan measure his individual success. Fitting in to a completely new environment, finding new friends, making Reardan’s basketball team … all add up to understanding his new identity and the fact that he becomes a part-time Indian. Robert Frost in his poem, The Road Not Taken, writes: “I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Junior’s life runs in parallel with this poem: he takes the road less traveled by making the decision to attend Reardan, and the difficulties that he overcomes in becoming a part-time Indian are what drives him towards and on that road: the road of success. As Booker T. Washington rightly said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
I thank you very much Mr. Alexie for teaching me in your book through humor, sarcasm, and light-heartedness that there are always people and other comforts in life that can be depended on to help overcome any personal obstacles. I have learned that asking for help and advice from others, whether it be from family or friends, can significantly help me in understanding my true selfhood.
I would like to end with a final thought and declaration of mine… I am Meghana Iyer, an Indian, an Asian, an American, whatever you call it, but I am extremely proud of who I am. I am proud to be me.
2013 Level I Winners
Sadie Oster, Individual Entry
I should probably introduce myself. I’m Sadie Oster, and I love to read! My dad once told me that I have read more books in my lifetime than he has in his, and he’s 42! As much as I would like to credit my love of reading to my superior brain (just kidding!), your book, “The Little Engine That Could” has to take the prize!
I am deaf in both ears, so noises don’t mean as much to me, but words! Well, they’re like music to my ears (no pun intended)! When I’m reading a book, there’s no need for me to pretend to understand a conversation when I know exactly what everyone is saying! I don’t need to constantly ask, “What?” when I can see the answer right in front of my eyes!
When I read your book, even today, I can imagine the despair in the toys’ voices when their train broke down, rather than having to hear it! I can put myself in the old engine’s place, when he wanted to take the toys up the mountain, but was too weak to. I can feel the Little Blue Engine’s joy when she made it to the top! Your book helped me see that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I can see the good in people who try, and help people who can’t make it by themselves.
I also realized that I was the Shiny New Engine, “too cool” to do the right thing. Like being mean to my old friends because they are not considered “popular”. I try to think positive, be positive and work positively. I know that it will result in something good.
1 million books later, and I’m still reading about a little blue engine!
Sincerely, Sadie O.
Autumn Trujillo, Delano Middle School
Dear Stephanie S. Tolan,
I read your book Listen! last year when I was in fifth grade. Listen! really taught me to pay more attention and that not everything worth noticing is right in front of you. It also taught me to take the time to notice little things like the tiny ants or how a grove of trees looks like a cool fort.
In Listen!, Charley’s mother noticed a limbo stick in an ordinary tree. That was how she got her fantastic picture! I have found that in a lot of places since I read Listen! I have noticed more details than ever before! I have two ways of looking at things: what they look like and how they really look. The first is how I used to see things. The second is how I see things after reading Listen!. If I was looking at a sun flower I used to just see a yellow flower, now I see all of the creases on each petal and every single seed. Another way I now see things is as I weren’t myself. Like if I was from the past or future or if I were another person from a different place or country. Some things would look pretty cool!
When Charley looks at the spider web with specks of dew on it and noticed all of the details that are how I see things now. Listen! has shown me that everything has more than what meets the eye and you have to take the time to notice all of the world’s secrets!
Listen! has made a huge impact on the way I look at things. I have noticed things that I have missed out on for the last ten years of my life. Thank you for writing Listen! it is such a wonderful book!
Autumn Trujillo, Grade 6
Rosalie Kurtz, Capitol Hill School
Dear Ms. Park,
When I read A Long Walk to Water, I learned how lucky I am to live in a place with no war or anything that threatens my life. When Salva was pulled from his school, I realized that not everybody is secure and safe all the time. After he left his school and walked for miles with the group of people from his village then left behind by them because he was a kid. I thought about being alone without my family and friends. I can’t even imagine being left alone in a place I don’t know. When Salva started walking with the other group and they start walking to Ethiopia, two countries away. I thought about how far that was. I complain when I walk five miles. Salva walked a thousand miles and didn’t complain once. This makes me think about what kind of person Salva is. What kind of person am I?
As I kept reading the book and read what terrible things happened to Salva I kept thinking that everything would stop and Salva would live happily ever after, but it never did. The bad things just kept coming and I realized that for Salva, happily ever after was a long way away.
If I were to say one thing that this book taught me it would be how lucky I am. There are so many things that I just expect because I have never been deprived of them, like food, a house, new clothes when I need them, a warm bed at night the list goes on and on. Salva didn’t have many of these things on his “long walk to water.” He really didn’t have much food and it was always hard to find. Water is really easy for me, all I have to do is turn on the sink and clean, and drinkable water comes out. Salva had to cross a desert for three days and only got a gourd filled with water. Salva didn’t have a house because his village was burned down during the war. I have one but I don’t think much of it because I have never expected anything different from going home to a warm heated house after being outside in the cold. I get new clothes very frequently. Salva had to use the same clothes for years and they got ripped and torn to shreds. His shoes fell apart so he had to go barefoot across a desert.
Reading this book helped me realize that there really are people who are suffering out in the world. I am very, very fortunate and this book taught me that. Thank you Linda Sue Park and Salva.
2013 Level II Winners
Sophia Kurowski, The Blake School
Dear Mr. Bradbury,
For 13 years now I have sat by and watched as the world has grown more and more dependent on technology. I will admit that I too have fallen victim to the enticement of technology and all it has to offer. But there’s always been a part inside of me that yearned to pick up a book every once and awhile. A real book, with real paper pages that I can flip through from front cover, to back. You have reflected to me my own views and perspectives between the text of Fahrenheit 451. Will we ever reach a point where we can never sit down to enjoy a conversation with family? Or will our families be replaced by moving faces on a television screen?
As I began to read your book on that dark, dreary summer day, I was moved from the start. Your very first words set me soaring on a journey of profoundness that I never would have expected. What struck me most was that your view on the future was strikingly accurate. And that striking accuracy was what forced me to reflect on my own life as well as that of those around me. Is this how we are bound to turn out in a few years or so? You made me realize just how disconnected from one another we are becoming. With everyone so engrossed in their cell phones, iPads, and laptop computers, no one ever has time just to sit and chat with friends or family. No one ever takes the time to stop and really think anymore. It made me wonder, how can technology be adapting more and more, providing us with devices to easily connect us, yet we are becoming more and more disconnected from those around us?
The burning of books, now who would ever be possessed to do such a thing? Our Country? Our neighbors? Our family? What if it all suddenly changed and everything went online? No more books, no more stories. Just Kindles and wires and memory chips. What if we went so far as to ban reading entirely? Quite frankly, that thought scares me to say the least. Watching as firefighters become fire-makers and anyone who stands in their way gets burned along with the books. Watching as my family, my friends, and my entire community get brainwashed to the point of no return; these are things I truly hope to never witness. But maybe, just maybe I can be that girl. I can be that girl who still finds time to sit back and watch the world. Who speaks her mind to anything and anyone who will listen. Maybe I can be Clarisse. And maybe there will be a man who will actually stop and listen to what I have to say. And maybe I can change his life, his views, and slowly undo the tight brainwashing that has entangled him for so long. Passing along to him my thoughts, while changing the world one word, one sentence, and one story at a time.
Elizabeth Sheldon, The Blake School
Dear Carolyn Keene,
Books are magical, the sheer power of a beautiful book is something we do not yet understand. Books can change you, bend your mind and snap it back like a rubber band. There are those books that you never outgrow, books that you just can’t shake no matter how hard you try. No matter what, when I think about a book that changed me, a book that I’ve never outgrown, I think of The Nancy Drew Mysteries. Smiling at her successes and holding back tears at her failures, sitting in my bed afraid to turn the page, not knowing what Nancy’s future holds. Her emotions seeping inside of me like they’re my own. Always wondering if she really will solve the mystery, crack the code, or discover the secret.
From a very young age I have always been one of “those readers” the ones who are up until two in the morning on a Tuesday night because they can’t bear the thought of not knowing how a story ends. Books are my sanctuary, thrillers, heart-wrenchers, and feel good stories, I’ve read them all. Dissolving into another world with outrageous characters and mind-boggling endings will never get old. I remembered the day I discovered Nancy, in where else? An attic. Appropriate I know. It was there my six year old self found a large box full of my mom’s 1960’s Nancy Drew Mysteries, all 56 of them. Lined up so I could see that signature picture of Nancy holding up a magnifying glass on the faded yellow binding. I found number one, The Secret of The Old Clock. Nancy in her vintage green dress on the cover, unscrewing the bolts on the old clock in a creepy forest. From then I was hooked, page after page, of sheer joy.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that these books got me through a devastating time in my life, shaped my destiny or anything like that because if I told you that I’d be lying. You and Nancy have simply kindled my love for reading and I’d say that is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. You opened up a new world of books to me. Pages and pages of faraway lands and magical worlds. I just wanted to keep reading and reading, and I still do.
Probably my favorite part about these books is the balance, too many of the mystery stories I have recently read have sacrificed well developed characters for a thrilling plot, or vice-versa. Your Nancy Drew books are not like that. You’ve found the best of both worlds, relatable characters hand-and-hand with a plot that keeps me on my toes. These books make my face simply light up with a smile whenever I run my hand across the crisp yellowed pages.
Thank you Carolyn Keene for giving me books I can snuggle up under a blanket and sink my teeth into on a cold winter morning. Thank you for giving me a quick escape from my daily life. Most of all, thank you for Nancy and all that she brings me.
Jessie Wang, Minnetonka Middle School West
Dear Stephen Chbosky,
There are times in our lives when we are unsure of who we are. There are times when we are confused, when we are lost and we can’t figure out what to do. A few months ago, I was feeling this way, and I was feeling like this had been going on for too long a time. Oddly enough, this was when I picked up your book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It wasn’t what I was expecting -at all.
I was compelled by your book because Charlie was almost an exact depiction of me. I shared many thoughts and ideas with Charlie, and he had a personality very similar to mine. The thing that surprised me about Charlie, though, was that he was more of an observer. Instead of getting into things, he simply watched. He was a wallflower.
I found in this book that so was I.
Now, if you look up what “wallflower” means, you’ll get some European vegetable as the first definition. The second definition is what you meant for Charlie to be, “a person who, because of shyness, unpopularity, or lack of a partner, remains at the side at a party or dance”. I’m sure, though, that your definition of a wallflower means more than that. A wallflower, to you, is defined as someone who does not speak up or partake in life. I had very mixed emotions when I realized how much this definition fit me. As I finished the book and set it down, it occurred to me that this wasn’t exactly a good thing. I didn’t want to be just a wallflower.
Bill tells Charlie, in the book, to “participate in life”. I had never picked up on that before. I felt like I could just stand by and do nothing and my life would be just the same as everyone else’s. I thought I could participate without talking. But this small thing that Bill said affected me in so many ways. I realized that being a quiet person was not what I wanted to be. I wanted to share my ideas, and I wanted to be someone, not just another person. After all, just as you and so many others put it, once we’re gone, we’re only stories.
I’ve tried, for quite a while now, to participate in life. I’m still shy and awkward, but it’s getting better. I try, at least, to put my ideas into words, even if I’m not sharing them. It’s something I both want to do, and don’t want to do but I persist and push through. I speak my ideas. I want to be heard.
I think it’s high time I had a voice.
Best regards, Jessie Wang
2013 Level III Winners
First Place Winner:
Amy Sawyer, Shakopee East Junior High
(Dear Stephen Chbosky), Dear friend,
I think that it would be best if before you know why it is that a random teenager is writing to you about why your book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is one of her most prized and adored possessions, you know who she is. My name is Amy Sawyer. I am 14, quirky, a daydreamer, and I believe that the power of words is unparalleled; perhaps odd traits to put for one’s self but nonetheless completely truthful ones. Books are treasures to me and I’m sure that I have read hundreds by now, all of which I could tell you the plot of. But far too often these stories do not stop me in my tracks and make me assess my life or change me in any way, shape, or form; yours did.
Before your book I was Charlie, in a sense. I was a bit awkward and reticent. I would have much rather watched the world go round as if I were watching a movie, instead of hopping on the rollercoaster of life and living the adventure. Now that you know me, let’s begin with how I happened upon your book.
It was halfway through the summer before my freshman year of high school and I was in the greatest place on Earth (at least in my opinion), Barnes and Noble. Scanning through the hundreds of books like every other visit, I literally bumped into one on the table in an isle while reading the back of another book (you can add clumsy to the list of traits). This caused one of the books that teetered on the edge of the overflowing table to topple onto the carpet. Naturally I couldn’t just leave it so I picked it up and read the title. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, what did that mean? It had sparked my interest and the rest is history.
I have spent several minutes, hours even, pondering exactly what it is about your book that changed me, and after all that thinking I believe that I have found the reason. Charlie addresses the reader as a friend and immediately gives you a description of people he needs to exist in the world. When I read this I wanted to be one of those people and that is why I read this book differently. Not like I read it backwards or from right to left, but I read it as unbiased as I could because Charlie asked for someone who understood, and I so desperately wanted to understand. I didn’t judge anything about the book or the characters as I would have if my opinions were in mind. I wanted to be that understanding person that is looked to for strength whether I was or not. Through this lens of reading I learned with Charlie and grew with him. I realized that you’ll never truly live if you’re afraid of life.
This year I have tried to not be a wallflower and talk to people that I’ve never met before purely because I want to know them or that they are there. Now I don’t walk into a classroom and inwardly groan whenever there is nobody I know or go through a whole school day without speaking more than 20 words. These things may seem a bit juvenile to you but to me these are life changing. I have made so many new friends and no longer shy away from others. I have joined drama class, a decision that would have seemed unfathomable but now is the best hour of my day.
Since this is the first and last you will probably ever hear from me I want you to know three things. First, that “asleep” is one of the greatest songs ever to listen to when I am reading. Second, that I now live for those moments when I feel infinite. And finally, that I think I know how it’s possible to be both happy and sad at the same time. So thank you for that because it is truly a wonderfully tragic feeling.
May you and your story remain infinite,
Amy Sawyer Recovered Wallflower
Tristan Ott, Caledonia High School
Dear Karl Marx,
I read your essential writings, which were edited with an introduction and notes by David Caute. Your writings have taught me numerous ideas about the world I couldn’t have dreamed about knowing. You have outlined nearly every single aspect wrong with our capitalistic society. You predicted over one hundred years in the future the struggles of this doomed system of economy and government. Although the end has yet to come, the struggles of our country are very evident to those with a keen eye. I now realize how the bourgeois’ dominance of the proletariat and the subsequent revolution by the latter class is inevitable. They have made me disgusted by our politician’s hypocrisy.
Your writings also taught me about myself. They taught me that all the comforts of my life are not sustainable and will surely be short lived. They taught me that I should not desire to be the wealthy capitalist, but the member of the workers union, fighting for better wages and conditions. But what your writings taught me most of all is to never let money become the singular matter of importance in my life. You have written how money destroys the importance of familial bonds and replaces it with a desire to obtain material wealth. Your writings also point out the inevitable destruction of our environment if our government continues to exploit it for capital gain.
These writings surprised me by how ignorant I really am. I have an extremely long way to go before I fully understand any of your theories. I was also surprised while reading, how far I have been sucked into the false desires that are encouraged in America today. It was shocking to realize how much worth, how much faith I have in simple pieces of paper, and what I can get with them. Also what kind of respect I have for wealth and property. Are these really the measurements for how much a man is worth? It seems as if no amount of honor and moral soundness is worth the fame and fortune these days.
These works are very meaningful to me. They have given me no small amount of indispensable knowledge. And I will attempt to use this knowledge to combat the evils that surround me, and to further the agenda of goodness the best I can. I can place no value on these writings nor can I recommend them enough to those who have a desire to know, and those who yearn for an explanation of this troublesome world.
Third Place (tie):
Jake Hill, Shakopee East Junior High
Dear J.K. Rowling,
I’ve been sitting at my desk for the last hour trying to think of a book that has impacted my life enough to write about it. Although the Harry Potter series is my favorite series, the actual books didn’t impact me very much, no offense. What impacted me was the experience of reading them with my dad and sister.
When I was about five we started reading the first book. My sister and I would listen to my dad read it aloud. The first movie had already come out, but my dad wouldn’t let us watch it until we read the book, so we read a part in the book and then watched the corresponding part in the movie. When we first watched the movie my parents wouldn’t let me watch the part where Harry goes into the woods and sees Voldemort drinking the blood out of a unicorn. At the time it really bummed me out. I was super mad that they didn’t think I could handle it. I was five; I thought I was big enough to see it. To this day that scene still freaks me out.
Once we caught up to the books being released, my family would go to the Barnes and Noble midnight release party. Every time a book was about to get released my mom, sister and I would sit in a huge line outside of Barnes and Noble to get tickets. Then on the release night we would all go to the party. My sister and I would dress up like characters in the book. For the Deathly Hallows party we went as Fred and George Weasley. We dyed our hair orange and got Gryffindor robes. We even got wands (which I learned later were just drum sticks). One of the local news stations was at Barnes and Noble reporting on how huge the book was and the reporter interviewed us about it. I was 10 and had never been on camera so I was pretty nervous. I couldn’t finish my sentences so my sister completed them for me. It ended up working out because the twins do that. It was pretty fun. Oh and you can really tell how fake reporters laughs are when you’re in person, even when you’re ten.
After we got the book at midnight my sister and I made my dad read all the way home and for hours into the night. He would tell us he had to stop because he was losing his voice, but we made him keep reading. We read it every chance we got. At night my dad would keep reading until one of us fell asleep, usually me, and then I’d wake up and pretend I wasn’t sleeping so he would keep reading.
Although I don’t like to admit it, a lot of my favorite memories from when I was a kid are from Harry Potter. It was really fun and it was good family time. We don’t have enough of that anymore.
Third Place (tie):
Minh-Uyen Nguyen, Robbinsdale
Dear James Patterson,
Countless times I’ve read your book, Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, and countless times I’ve gotten lost between the pages and couldn’t care less about being found. The first time I picked up your book, I only wanted a fun, thrilling adventure story to pass the time. But as the story progressed, I felt a deeper connection between the characters and I, sprouting like the roots of a giant oak tree. I might not have 2% Avian DNA or enormous wings, but the situations that occur in the story could happen to me or anyone trying to find their place in the world; it’s just a different perspective of obstacles that people face everyday.
The erasers in the story that hunts down Max and her family, taunting them, hurting them, they were my first connection. When Max and her family were running away from the Erasers, I saw myself taking a different hallway to avoid someone. When Max and her family faced the Erasers head-on, I saw myself confronting those whispers. And then it hit me out of nowhere like a slap to the face; Erasers exist in our society. Even though the erasers were there to make every obstacle Max faced even more difficult, Max found a way to stand up for herself, and so can all the victims of bullying in our society. Through your book, you expressed the importance of every single individual in a very captivating way. It’s hard to think that there are so many people committing suicide because they never found the courage to stand up to their Eraser.
At the time I was reading your book, my family was in a bit of a rut. My dad, the main provider of the family, lost his job. We had to cut back on a lot of things and I couldn’t help but think, “What’s going to happen to us?” This is where my second connection came in. Your story made me realize that the mountains that stand in our way, are actually climbable. Sure, looking up from the bottom of the mountain, not knowing exactly how high it is, can be scary, but that’s okay. The important thing is to take that initiative step and begin the climb. Max taught me that you have to get back up on your feet even when the wind has been knocked out of your lungs and you’re desperately gasping for air. I realized that even though our family was in a difficult position, we eventually got up. My dad found a job and I have to say, the view up here is pretty amazing.
Even now, I’m still lost between your pages, the story woven deep within me. So thank you, Mr. Patterson, for getting me through some tough times, and making me realize some of the little things in life. The Maximum Ride series will always be my all-time favorite book series. I should think about getting a new copy of this book…mine’s getting just a little too tattered…
2012 State Winner, Level 1:
Grace Hoaglund, Montrose
(Letter to Jerry Spinelli, author of Maniac Magee)
Dear Jerry Spinelli,
I have always been against bullying, but I never thought it could be as bad as in Maniac Magee. For example, not talking to a person that has different color skin than mine.
As I was reading your book, I thought of bullying and being different from others in my own life. In my school kids are separated into groups like boys and girls or fifth grade and sixth grade, but kids are not separated based on skin color. At my school we include other people regardless of their skin color or other differences; like people with disabilities.
I guess people might say I am like Jeffery who has the courage to talk to someone that is not “his kind”. In school if someone is mean to one of my classmates I stand up for them. I have courage to stand up for kids in my school who have disabilities. For example, there is a kid in my grade who bullies kids with disabilities and if I see it I tell that person to stop what they are doing. In my opinion, a person is a person and everybody deserves to be treated equally.
I know bullying can hurt someone and make them feel sad. I have seen people in my school be picked on for the kind of clothes they wear or liking certain things and it is damaging. I have also seen people stand up for others when this happens and how that helps create friendships. I like how at the end of the book Jeffery and Mars Bars become true friends instead of enemies because of Jeffery’s courage to stand up for someone. It is a good way to end the book and shows that being different doesn’t change the meaning of friendship.
This motivated me to be nice to everybody, including my family. Sometimes I might hurt someones feelings and not realize it. I think this book really helped me to become a better person and realize things that could really hurt and change a person’s life. I think everybody is special in their own way and there is no reason to make fun of that. Thank you, this book impacted my perspective on bullying.
2012 State Winner, Level 2:
Will Kaback, St. Louis Park
(Letter to Cornelia Funke, author of Inkheart)
Dear Ms. Cornelia Funke,
I have always wondered if an author can experience their own writing. Can you, the writer, read your work and feel the tension and suspense? Engross yourself in a different world? Jump at cliffhangers? I find this question pestering me today, long after I first read Inkheart.
Inkheart shaped my childhood and continues to inhabit my thoughts to this day. I first read your book snuggled up with my mom at my grandparents’ cabin in Maine. It was the summer of 2004 and I was 7. At the time, as I gazed at the red cover, marveling at the rich illustrations, I didn’t know that I was about to embark on a journey that would change my life. I began to read.
A few days later I shut the book quietly, finished. I felt almost shocked. Too many things were happening in my head to comprehend the world around me. I could feel my mind shifting, forming new ideas, new ambitions. I opened the book again. Thumbed through the pages, smiling at passages and re-reading my favorite scenes.
Writing. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write, and write a lot.
I took to the paper, spilling my feelings onto the page. I was inspired by your characters. The courageous and haunted Mo, the witty and brash Eleanor, and the sneering, vile Basta, a name that rolls off the tongue and reeks with evil. Many scenes still stick in my mind. Meggie’s discovery of her mother, the journey to Fenoglio’s, defeating the Shadow. I had discovered my passion and there was no going back.
But that was the summer of 2004, seven years ago. The thing is, I didn’t forget Inkheart. How could I?
After that summer, I moved from upstate New York to Minnesota and started third grade at a new school. Naturally, I was apprehensive. Moving away from the East coast for the first time in my life was quite a transition. I kept a clear head by writing. Honestly though, my ideas weren’t anything special (immature is the better word) but to me, my writing was magic. I wrote of massive wars, nighttime adventures, and fantastic creatures. With great gusto, I read aloud to my parents, who looked on with knowing smiles on their faces, quietly shaking with laughter. Nevertheless, I persevered. By 5th grade I was working on a novel. In 6th grade, I wowed and disgusted my English class with a graphic description of a murder. I wanted to break out of the boundaries around me. I couldn’t have cared less about gerunds or prep phrases; I wanted to write!
The only way I knew how to write was to write fast, but I knew I had to regulate myself. Nothing good would come out of pointless, frantic writing. First, I had to learn.
Finally, one day, I noticed Inkheart on my bookshelf. Curious, I opened it and read a passage. Transfixed for the umpteenth time, I read on. That night, I asked my mom to download the book off Audible, so I could listen to it in bed. She obliged and that night I heard Lynn Redgrave’s silky voice for the first time. “Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.” She said, “Chapter One…”
From then on I listened to Inkheart every night. It became my companion and I continue to listen to the story to this day. Even though I have probably listened to the whole book through about 25 times, it never gets old.
The effect your book has had on me could not be described in words. In Inkheart, characters are magically read out of books to live in the “real” world. When I read, and re-read Inkheart, the effect on me was the opposite. I fall into the book.
Which brings me here, trying to illustrate to you how important Inkheart is to me. There isn’t a sentimental story that explains why the book has changed my life, but I think that is what makes Inkheart that much more powerful. It can change me by itself, using just words. Black ink on white paper. But let’s be honest. They’re much more than just words.
Here’s to reading, writing, and a book that I will never forget.
2012 National and State Winner, Level 3:
Alexandra McLaughlin, Minneapolis
(Letter to Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried)
Dear Tim O’Brien,
A $12 digital watch from Target. A bottle of Ibuprofen. A heart-shaped gold ring my Mom wore when she was a teenager. Vanilla-scented hand lotion. The memory of my mom lying lifeless and still on a hospital bed, her cold hands no longer squeezing back. A shoebox containing a lifetime of letters, some creased, worn, and stained with tears. My sister’s sleepy but comforting voice through the phone at 2 AM, when I lie awake, haunted by the past and crippled by fears. I know. It will be okay. I love you.
These are the things I carry.
Two years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, my Mom had a sudden heart attack while running. She collapsed on the side of the road and died instantly. My English class read The Things They Carried a few months later. What I expected was just another book about war. What I found was a message that spoke directly to my soul. Your book came when I felt my suburban town was the quintessential land of lollipops and ignorance, when I feared real pain and heartache were foreign to everyone but me. It came when I needed it the most.
I’ve wanted to become a writer ever since I could remember. Yet after the death of my mom, words seemed weak and cruelly useless. After all, a world where my Mom could have a physical and be characterized as the “picture of perfect health” and then die a week later was not a world in which words were valuable. Writing could not change the past. Writing could not change anything. That was what I thought until I read your book.
I was not even alive during the Vietnam War, yet you brought me to that place. Through Rat Kiley’s torture of the baby water buffalo, you stunned me with a gruesome physical image of emotional grief. If you could help me understand a war fought halfway across the world three decades before I was born, maybe I too could reach others with my words.
You tell a story about Norman Bowker returning from war. He overflows with terrible memories and stories, yet he has no one to tell. His father never asks. His neighbors never ask. No one ever asks. This is how I felt after my mom died. My naive and trusting demeanor shattered, I could no longer view the world the same way. I was annoyed, even angry at the unchanged dynamics at school and with my friends. My life had just been ripped apart and in those first intense months of grief, it seemed as though no one even noticed.
Worst of all, no one asked about my mom. People were so afraid of saying something wrong they closed their mouths and kept it that way. It was as if my mom: who woke up every morning to run because it made her feel alive, who spent hours in her garden, who sang in the kitchen as she washed dishes, who loved her children so much she lay awake at night worrying about us, it was as if this woman had never existed.
I could not understand this but I was being forced to accept it. When the soldier eventually killed himself, I was jolted awake. Why are death, war, and loss such taboo subjects? Why must we bury them down deep inside, cover our fears and uncertainties with a strained smile, and ignore a whole part of ourselves? No longer was I going to hide the past and the pain. I wouldn’t give up because people were unwilling to listen. I would spin words into poetry and attempt to define the indefinable. Circumstances had broken my heart, weighed down my shoulders, and given me a life-long burden to carry. Yet I was unwilling to succumb to the same fate as the disillusioned soldier. I would not be shattered.
Your last chapter simultaneously opened fresh wounds and gave me the first real comfort since my mom’s death. I cried when Linda died. It was tragic. She was so young. I thought of my Mom and it was almost unbearable. However, I realized from your book that stories could keep a person alive. Stories allow us to visit the past how it was: untainted in its beauty and unmarked by death or struggle.
Thank you for telling these stories, Mr. O’Brien. Thank you for the painfully honest and emotional descriptions of war. Thank you for giving me comfort and hope in a time that was clouded by darkness and uncertainty. Your poignant words in The Things They Carried will forever be included in the things I carry. You helped me see that I am not alone.
2011 State and National Honor Winner, Level 1:
Nicholas Behrens, Falcon Heights
(Letter to Debra Frasier, author of On the Day You Were Born)
Dear Debra Frasier,
Each and every living thing in the universe is unique and spectacular! Each and every plant, animal, and person is connected to another and has an important place and purpose! Each and every day of my life, I see this in the green Earth around me and feel it deep down in my soul. Please know, Ms. Frasier, that these valuable and treasured messages I first learned and experienced from you! And, from my parents who told me the story in your beautiful book On the Day You Were Born on March 29, 1999, the day I was welcomed to this “spinning world”!
Your warm words and vivid pictures were my very first gift! All bundled up in a blanket, I soaked them in as my dad read to me and rocked me on the evening after my birth. (Although I don’t remember it, a priceless photograph tells me of this moment.) When I travel all the way back to my beginning memories, I can capture your book. I think of my family and friends circled around me, reading it “with voices familiar and clear” at my birthday gatherings. How thrilled I was to celebrate my third birthday with a brand new big kid bed and my grandparents at my side to tuck me in that night! Their loving voices brought alive all of the colorful creatures, the “burning sun”, the “quiet glowing moon”, and the “glittering silver stars” as they shared your story. When I was still very small, On the Day You Were Born gave me a connection with others who would become the most important people in my life!
Long before I could read, Ms. Frasier, I knew your verses by heart, hearing them in my mind at the turn of each page. They helped me learn to love words that feel like a song! They provide joy, delight, comfort, and reassurance each time I touch them, because they have become a part of me. Before I could walk, I traveled to far away places and discovered the beauty and science of the Earth in your book. It helped me learn to love nature! Later, when I actually journeyed to a “forest of tall trees” and a “rising tide washing beaches clean for my footprints”, your story came to life for me once again. I saw the wonder of the world at work! When I was still somewhat small, On the Day You Were Born showed me an intricate and grand universe beyond myself and my home.
Now, I am not so small anymore! I still feel the marvel of your magical book when my mom, dad, and brother Nathan read it to me! Lately, however, I have found even more happiness reading it to others. My most special recent memory of On the Day You Were Born is when I read “Welcome to the spinning world! We are so glad you’ve come!” to my Grandma on her last birthday, a week after mine, before she died. I know within my heart that we are all meant to be on this planet together, to take care of this place and one another. Thank you, Ms. Frasier, for giving your beautiful book to the world and to me!
2011 State and National Honor Winner, Level 2:
Solomon Polansky, Minnetonka
(Letter to Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon)
Dear Mr. Keyes,
Upon reading your book Flowers for Algernon, I felt a change. Perhaps not a physical change, such as a loss of a limb, but a change in my mind and heart. This story provided me with a new understanding of our society and a completely different point of view I had never thought about previously. A new window was opened in my mind, and now light could flood in.
This change began with the main character in your story. Charlie, a man with an obvious mental disability, narrates his experience in journal form. Charlie was able to teach me about myself and society as a whole. As I journeyed with Charlie through its pages, I began to realize new truths about knowledge and intelligence.
We often judge these two powerful characteristics, knowledge and intelligence, by someone’s IQ or test scores. However, this measuring system is flawed. Before Charlie’s operation, he is hardworking, modest, and friendly to all, even to those who ridicule and mock him because of his disability. Soon after the procedure, as his intelligence rapidly increases, he becomes irritable, impatient, and condescending. Is this what we prize as a culture? High test scores at the expense of civility? Now more than ever, high achievement is prized in our society; getting second place is unacceptable and is viewed as failure. Our American culture turns everything into a competition. From athletics (such as professional leagues) to academics (such as college admission), our society has made everything into a contest.
The scientists who engineered this change in Charlie also share this obsession with first place. Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur are constantly bickering with their associates about whose opinion is correct, and who contributes more to the project. Then, when presenting the results of the project, they work hard to ensure that their experiment would be first at the national science convention. To believe that these are the brilliant minds which we so highly prize is ridiculous given that their drive was not necessarily to serve the greater good, but to elevate their own image in the scientific world.
All of this experimentation went on without Charlie being consulted very much at all, and without his understanding of the risks. His sister, Norma, who has very little contact with him, is the one to give consent for the procedure. This leads to the question whether this experiment should have been done at all. Charlie is given a highly dangerous procedure without truly understanding the complications that are so common with experimental treatments. The more I think about this, the starker the injustice appears. If the scientists who conducted this experiment had spent more time testing their treatment on nonhuman subjects such as Algernon, would this have averted the agonizing end for Charlie as he watches his mind slip back into oblivion? Is it even ethical for the scientists to use a human being as a lab rat to test an experimental treatment when every previous treatment has failed? The scientists, no doubt, understood the risks, and yet they proceeded.
I often consider becoming a scientist when I grow older, yet this book casts a shadow upon a formerly brightly glorified profession. Not all scientists are saints in white coats, pulling miracles out of test tubes. This book shows a potential darker side of scientific motivation that was fascinating to see exposed. I am not opposed to scientific progress, yet I still wonder (especially in extreme cases as this) if human test subjects should be used, and what ethical questions this raises.
Your book was appreciated,