2017 Level I Winners
Ava Kaydea, Lake Country Montessori School, Minneapolis
(letter to Hilary McKay, author of Lulu and the Hamster in the Night)
Dear Hilary McKay,
I was always hard on myself, because when trying to read books like Harry Potter, I had a very hard time and I felt sad, mad, and angry because I never could read it and everyone else could. Sometimes I wished that I didn’t have the problems of dyslexia. Trying to read books was so hard that I stopped trying as hard and lost my confidence.
But when I found Lulu and the Hamster in the Night, I was very happy because I couldn’t stop reading it. I wasn’t frustrated. I didn’t have to stop to sound out every word. I wasn’t stressed out by the book. I had been always worried about reading a ‘younger’ kids book and what people would think. This Lulu book was a chapter book and seemed a great level for me, not too young. I lost myself in the book. I imagined pictures in my mind about the story. It was the first time that I really enjoyed a book that I could read myself. It gave me the confidence to read other books. After reading Lulu and the Hamster in the Night, I was more confident because I had gotten through a whole book by myself and loved it!
I knew you had changed the way I thought about dyslexia reading skill, because reading became a little easier, although reading is still kind of hard to this day. I definitely felt better about reading after reading this book. For the first time I was excited to read more books. I was happy to find out that you had written other books! My parents were smiling because they saw me reading this book on my own, instead of being sad that I didn’t like to read. They had worried about me because I had such a hard time with reading work.
You helped change my view of my dyslexia. I always thought my dyslexia was a bad thing about myself. But after reading your book, it made me realize that it’s not something to be angry or worry about, but it’s something that can get better the more I read and practice with my awesome tutor! The reason that I feel better about my dyslexia after reading the book, is because you wrote a book that I could read and enjoy, even though reading is challenging.
You used words I could figure out, words that made a great story, but were not too complicated to sound out. Your writing has really great descriptive words, like ‘starfish paws, raindrop eyes and cushion mountains.’ These words are good for imagining pictures in my mind. You also had many conversations in the story and I could tell who was talking because their words went along with their personality. Seeing and hearing the story in my mind helped me read it and understand it.
I want to thank you for writing this book the way you did. It really did help me change my perspective of my dyslexia. It was the first book that I really understood without someone else explaining to me. I have recommended this book to many children, including kids with dyslexia. They loved this book. You did a great job of making sure that most kids could read it and like it.
Maryeva Gonzalez, Convent of the Visitation School, Mendota Heights
(letter to Paul Harrington, author of The Secret to Teen Power)
Dear Paul Harrington,
I see things about people giving up on life all the time. I see it on news channels. I see it in newspapers. I overhear people talking about it. Some people have gotten to a point in their lives where they are unable to find happiness and feel like they don’t matter. Your book, The Secret to Teen Power, saved me from that.
My name is Maryeva. I am a sixth grader at Convent of the Visitation School. I have a mom, a dad, and an amazing little sister. My family loves me. My parents always make time for us and they make sure we have everything we need. I go to an awesome school and I have good grades. I couldn’t be happier, until I let things bother me.
There are small things people do that can pick away at your confidence; sometimes they don’t even notice they do it. They roll their eyes at something you say; they might interrupt you mid-sentence; they might even say something mean about you and move on like nothing happened. There are also things that happen in life, like forgetting your homework or getting a bad grade on a test. I started to pay more and more attention to these types of things. I started to find less happiness in my life and I focused more on the things that caused sadness. Whenever my friends came over to hang out with me, I laughed and joked with them even though in my head, I was miserable.
You helped me change. Your book showed me that I matter and that I can influence my life. The Secret helped me out of the hole I had dug myself and helped me focus on things that made me happy. I started using The Secret every day. I used it to have time for homework. I used it to get along better with the people around me. I even used it to face one of the larger problems that my past self-doubt had caused. This year, I was placed on a lower soccer team than all of my friends. This was the second time I didn’t make the team. This made me doubt myself even more and think I wasn’t a good soccer player. Once I discovered The Secret, I decided to do extra soccer training so that I would be on the team for sure the next year. I use The Secret during my soccer games and even in practices by having faith in myself that I will do well. The Secret helps me achieve any goal I set for myself.
Anything in life is possible and you are the only one who can make these things happen. Once you discover The Secret, you can learn how to make your life the way you want it. It doesn’t mean that life will be perfect, but The Secret shows you how to get through life with a positive mind and a grateful heart. Thank you Mr. Harrington, for helping people like me change our lives. If you are one of those people who are thinking of giving up on life, let me leave you with these words: You matter.
Third Place (tie):
Grace Keeley, Convent of the Visitation School, Mendota Heights
(letter to Patrick McDonnell, author of Just like Heaven)
Dear Patrick McDonnell,
Gratitude. Kindness. Giving others a second chance. These are some of the actions and ideas that your book Just Like Heaven has taught me to treasure. My parents bought me this wonderful book when my Godmother, Mary Ellen died. I was still very little, so I didn’t exactly understand what had happened. But when my Dad read Just Like Heaven to me I felt that Mary Ellen was closer to me than I really thought.
My Godfather, Mike, Mary Ellen’s husband and I sometimes talk about Mary Ellen. He reminds me about how much she loved me. She read books to me a lot. I know that she would have loved Just Like Heaven. I think she would find out that the world is packed to the brim with heaven, just the same way that I find that advice in your book.
In the book Mooch says, “I must be in heaven” and it makes my heart feel like a butterfly taking flight. When I wake up and look out my window at the people on the sidewalk and the beauty of nature I now think that I must be in heaven. This has taught me to treat everything and everyone like it is in heaven.
“HUG TIME!” Mooch says to the mean-looking and unloved dog, and Mooch does something surprising when he gives the dog a hug. Mooch does this because he believes he is in heaven. He also knows that if this mean dog is in heaven too then he must be nice. Your book has shown me to treat all people like they are in heaven, even the people you dislike because everybody deserves a second chance and an opportunity to be their best.
Mooch takes a walk around town, sees the friendly faces and hears the children’s laughter and he thinks, “So this is Heaven.” Because of Mooch I believe that we should be glad that we are here and make the most of it. I live that every day at my school, Visitation. When I am with all my funny, kind and caring classmates and also when I am with my Montessori buddy, Molly. She is one of the sweetest kids I have ever met.
In the book Mooch asks, “What would you do in heaven?” before he acts. This helps me to be my best Grace. I will think before I act, especially if people make me upset. More importantly, this has also taught be to help people who have trouble with not thinking before they act.
“Wow, what a great place” Mooch says when he opens the mean dog’s heart to be kinder to people. Your book also taught me to try a little harder to open others hearts to a little more kindness, happiness, love and much, much, more. I can also accept when I am in need of my heart to be opened up so I can better see how great the world is.
Finding heaven on earth can be done every day. I find it when I am playing with my friends, in the gently falling snow and in the sound of birds chirping in the morning.
I still miss Mary Ellen but I know she is always watching over me and helping me even when she is not physically here. When I can find heaven all around me while I’m on earth then I know she is very close to me. Your book has taught me so many lessons but most of all it has made me realize that I need to try to always see the world as so wonderful that I can mistake it for heaven.
Third Place (tie):
Ella Passe, Convent of the Visitation School, Mendota Heights
(letter to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of The War That Saved My Life)
Dear Kimberly Brubaker Bradley,
My life couldn’t be any more different than the life of Ada. There aren’t bombs dropping on my country. I don’t have a club foot. I’m not being starved by my cruel mother. I don’t have to stay inside and sit at a window all day, and I haven’t ever been trapped in a cabinet with roaches. I’m very lucky, but I never understood quite how lucky I am until I read your book. Your book, The War That Saved My Life, gave me perspective on what being lucky really is.
Lucky is defined as having good luck or being fortunate. This word’s meaning became even more clear to me after I read your book. This meaning was always clear to Ada because she always knew what lucky really meant.
Ada knew that she was lucky to leave her cruel birth mother and go live with Mrs. Smith in the country. Ada didn’t really even know Mrs. Smith at first, but she knew that she was lucky to have her. Unlike her biological mother who abused her, Mrs. Smith was kind and tried to help Ada thrive. I have never had to worry about not having enough food or being locked in a cabinet. Yet sometimes, I get really mad at my mother and think she’s being harsh, especially when she makes me drink milk, go to bed on-time, or wash my hands before I eat. Your book taught me that I’m really lucky to have a mother who cares enough to worry about me. I realized that she does these things because she loves me, wants me to be healthy, and wants me to thrive, just like Mrs. Smith wanted for Ada. Ada showed me the true meaning of being lucky.
I never quite understood the fact that everyone isn’t as lucky as I am, that is, before I read your book. Ada understood that she was very lucky when she arrived at Mrs. Smith’s house and was able to take a bath every day. Ada understood that not everyone was able to do that. I have had the opportunity to take a bath or a shower every day of my life, but I haven’t ever stopped to think about how lucky that is. In fact, when I was little, I felt that I was super unlucky when I had to take a shower or bath. Ada went almost eleven years without taking a bath once each week, so when she arrived at Mrs. Smith’s house, taking a bath seemed like a huge privilege to her. A privilege that I have always had, but never thought about as something that was lucky. Ada also considers herself lucky when she has the chance to put on pajamas instead of wearing her day clothes while she sleeps. When I was little, I used to complain about putting on different clothes before I went to bed. I also used to complain about brushing my teeth, something else that Ada didn’t always have the chance to do. Reading your book helped me to understand how lucky I am to be able to do some of the things that I never even think about doing. It also showed me that not everyone has the same opportunities that I have.
In conclusion, I want to thank you for writing The War That Saved My Life. I also want to thank you for creating Ada, a character who has taught me so much and given me perspective on how lucky I really am.
Sincerely, Ella Passe
Level II Winners
Charlotte Morrison, The Blake School, Hopkins
(letter to Judy Blume, author of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret)
Dear Judy Blume,
When I was eight years old, I didn’t know what sexism was, or know that it was a bad thing when my P.E teacher told my class to play boys against girls. I never knew that when I was older I would feel like I needed to look a certain way to fit in, and I never realized that many women and girls around me weren’t being treated equal to the boys, nor did I know that it was happening to me too, an eight year old. In third grade, my mom recommended to me your book, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. That’s when I learned there was something that needed to be changed in this world, and that I could help change it.
After I read your book for the first time, at the end of third grade, I cried. I cried because I hadn’t gotten my period yet, like Margaret got at the end of the book. I cried because I didn’t have a clique like Margaret’s to have secret names with, and to just be yourself around. I had friends, but I didn’t have the security of people walking up to me first, not vice versa. It seemed like a silly thing to be sobbing about growing up, and stressing about things I had never thought about before, and it was. Your book brought pain to me, but that discomfort vanished when I realized this is what I was being taught. I didn’t need all these things to be who I wanted to be. I shouldn’t worry about wearing bras, or being popular. Especially as a third grader, my life could have been stained with the unrealization of not understanding I don’t and didn’t need to be perfect to be who I want and wanted to be.
Later, when I was in about fifth grade, I picked up your incredible book once again, remembering the shift it made in my life a couple years before that, and I hoped that my more mature self would finish an unbelievably incredible book with more confidence than before. After finishing your book for the second time, I got exactly what I wanted. I realized Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret showed me that I don’t need to look like the girls in magazines, even though the contradictory idea is put in Margaret’s head. I thought it was atrocious how all the girls in the book wanted to resemble the models in Playboy, and I didn’t want to be like that; I wanted to be my fifth grade self. I questioned why all the men in the book are reading such an awful magazine, Playboy, why the women in that magazine were giving up their bodies like that, and why it wasn’t as critical to Margaret or any of her friends. I realized that it should be important, and that I won’t let body standards, like having a flat stomach and big breasts and butt define how I feel I need to look.
I have always been insecure about my friendships, who I am, and who I want to be, but at a young age, I thought it was only me. I thought that I was the only one who felt bad about everything I said, felt like I had no friends, and felt like nobody liked me. Many teachers, moms, basically everyone told me that this was happening to everyone, or at least a lot of people, but I never believed them, because that’s what they were supposed to tell me. It wasn’t until your book that I realized that they were right. Everyone is insecure about something, even though some people are really good at hiding it. In your book, Margaret doesn’t know anybody after her family’s move. Even after she meets Nancy, she still feels alone, so she knows she has to do everything to keep her as a friend. Because Margaret was also insecure, but she was honest to herself and the world, I looked up to her. Looking up to someone who had insecurities like me made me feel like I could get through it, and I realized that other people were going through the same things as me. Because of this, I trust myself a little more, and I am grateful that I have learned to be proud of what I used to be insecure about. Without this knowledge, my stress level would be soaring, and I would still be hiding myself to the world.
After reading your book so many times (I reread again and again after the second time), and learning something I care a lot about ending, sexism and the standards for women, I realized that without your book in third grade, I might never have learned that I can be whoever I want to be and look however I want to while doing it. I shouldn’t be hiding myself under my insecurities, and I learned from your book that one day I will be amazing, extra large, extra small, or anywhere in between. I will stand for what I believe in, and never let “little things” like cat-calls on the streets, or boys vs. girls in P.E class pass. You changed my life for the better, and slowly, I will help change other girls’ lives too. For that, I would like to say thank you.
India Lacey, The Blake School, Hopkins
(letter to Anne Frank, author of Diary of a Young Girl)
When you wrote Diary of a Young Girl, that’s exactly what you were, a young girl, aspiring to be a journalist. An ordinary, young girl, who would one day change the world. You worried about school, friends, and family, allthe things that I worry about today.
Reading your diary I realized how secure my own life is. I go to sleep at night knowing I am safe, knowing I am loved, and wanted. Adolf Hitler stole your childhood because you were Jewish. He forced you to live your life in hiding. Everyone around you was terrified and could only think about the war.
Until I read your diary I took for granted the support of my loving teachers, friends, and family. Now, I see this circle of support as a true blessing. The people who guide and accept me, the people who I feel safe with, help me become a better, stronger person. In contrast, you hid in an attic, fighting with your mother and sister all the time. Sometimes you found it hard to love them; so you turned to your diary, Kitty. Your best friend. A safe place. A place where you could chatter and hope, voice your fear and anger, and still feel loved.
Reading your diary I learned how important it is to have a place where I feel safe, where I can be myself and not worry about what anyone will think. My safe place is the world of books and poems, stories and letters, journals and diaries. Like you, I find getting words out on paper can be therapeutic.
Writing your diary was an act of bravery. I know that because looking at my weaknesses makes me feel small and flawed. But if I keep my weaknesses a secret, it lets them control me, facing those fears is what helps me begin to overcome them. Everyone has fears, and naming them helps me connect to others. It helps me realize that everyone is fighting their own inner battles.
You wrote unflinchingly about yourself in your diary. But the Nazis only allowed you to be Jewish. They didn’t acknowledge any other part of your identity. I am Jewish, American, British, an athlete, a writer, a dreamer, a girl. The Nazis believed your personality, thoughts and opinions were irrelevant. They dehumanized you so they could sleep better at night. They never thought about torturing and killing millions of thinkers, writers, dreamers, intellectuals, children, scientists and politicians because those souls were mereJews.
To the Nazis you were just a Jew, that single word, with a gold star stamped on your chest like a barcode on a box of cereal. I am proud to be Jewish, and part of that pride comes from you.
When we talk about great Jews who have helped shape our world, you are right up there with Albert Einstein and David Ben Gurian. You wrote: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Fifty years after your death, your bravery and persistent hope continue to motivate the world. People are still inspired by you every day. And you were thirteen, just like me, when you went through it all.
Most people go through their whole lives and never have the confidence that they can make a difference. You wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” You have taught me that I can serve breakfast at a homeless shelter, I can volunteer at a children’s hospital, I can raise five hundred dollars to help a woman start her own business. Because of you I know these things matter.
Thank you, Anne. You were brave enough to reveal everything about yourself to Kitty. You taught me that I don’t have to hide a part of myself to be accepted, I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. I get to be me. You showed me, an ordinary girl, that I can be brave, I can be myself, I can change the world.
With love and heartfelt thanks,
Sridhatri Guntipally, Eagle Ridge Academy, Minnetonka
(letter to Kurt Vonnegut, author of Harrison Bergeron)
Dear Kurt Vonnegut,
“Equality” is a word as familiar as happiness or freedom in my mind, something I have believed to be extremely important. Simultaneously, I have overlooked it and taken it for granted. It is a word we have discussed many times over in English and History class, a word our country’s very foundations, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, contain. Countless brave men lost their lives fighting for this right in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Yet I have never truly thought about this word and wondered about its meaning until I read your short story, Harrison Bergeron.
In the very first paragraph of your story, you explained how everyone is finally equal in future America. Not only are they equal under “god and the law,” but in “every which way.” I did not comprehend your meaning at first because I felt we in today’s world are equal in “every which way,” so I speculated about how humans could be any more equal. Then as the story continued, it became clear that you meant that everyone is literally equal, as in no one is smarter, stronger, or better looking than anybody else. The treatment of the people in the name of equality was appalling. I cannot imagine having to endure hundreds of different brain cracking noises everyday like the intelligent people in your tale. Just the fire alarm that rings for a few minutes at school during a fire drill drives us insane. As a dancer, it breaks my heart to think that ballerinas whose purpose is to twirl and glide across the stage with amazing grace are hindered by the law.
I was truly perplexed. Equality was a glorified privilege that had only positive connotations in my mind. How could the disturbing reality created in your story be based on equality? Straightaway I reached for the dictionary to look up the word to see if the definition actually supported your story. The definition I found, “being the same in quantity, size, degree, or value,” fully defended your writing. It struck me then that, yes, equality has its benefits but it is not the most important thing. I realized I have mistaken the need for fairness for that of equality. Because of your story I have understood that equality is not what we should strive for since we were all created equal. No human being is ever greater than another. It is true that some are more athletic, more beautiful, or more intelligent than others; but, by no means are they actually better than everyone else. No laws or restrictions can make people equivalent. Every single one of us must believe from inside our hearts that all humans, whatever culture, ethnicity, or religion, are the same. Then only will we be equal for equality is not a tangible thing but a belief in our minds. If we try to literally make everything equal, then life loses purpose. There exists no scope for inspiration and happiness or improvement of society. Life becomes a drab machine-like procedure unlike the artwork full of meaning and surprises it was meant to be. How can something that was destined to be colorful and emotional be worthwhile if it is transformed into something routine and lifeless?
Of course, I do believe and hope that our nation will never tum into the future America you imagined, but your work made me wonder if we perhaps emphasize the wrong right. Maybe we claim to want equality while we truly desire fairness, or the state of being “free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.” Perhaps we never really want to be the same but rather to receive what we deserve. I feel this is particularly true when gender equality comes into consideration. Women all over the world have been fighting and still fight for men and women to be seen and treated as equal. We have mistaken fair treatment for being treated as the same. Because of many books and movies, females, especially young girls, have begun to believe that they need to be masculine in order to be perceived as worthy. They look down upon supposedly “ladylike” actions such as being polite, dressing nicely, and staying clean. I myself have been called a girly-girl for refusing to play beach volleyball in a wet court as an attempt to keep my clothes clean and dry. They think that a girl must be rough and tough, unemotional and sporty to be coequal to boys. These girls do not realize that men and women are different but of the same value. They think that they must appear and behave identical to males in order to be seen as a peer. However, they cannot be blamed for their opinions as masculinity is cool at school while femininity is seen as a weakness. I always wonder – don’t you think men and women would have been created the same without any dissimilarities if these differences had no purpose?
The one instance that grabs my attention when I ponder equality, especially gender equality, is an event that happened quite recently – the summer before eighth grade. One evening my family attended a housewarming party in our neighborhood. In our group of family friends I am the oldest child at the age of 14 so I always end up with the responsibility of caring for and entertaining the younger girls. As I explained a game to them, where every girl gets to choose a Disney princess whose story she will act out, a girl a little younger than me walked into the room. She said to me, “Why do they have to be princesses-why not warriors?” This really surprised me and I had no answer to give her. I too wondered if she was right and I should have let the girls be warriors. But now that I think about it, I see nothing wrong with pretending to be a princess. Who says the princess is not a warrior who saves her country like Mulan? And when a king is renowned and seen as a hero, what makes a princess who stands in the same position any different or less? Now, with the help of your short story and that incident, I am truly proud to be a girl. I have no need to prove to anybody that I am equal to boys by doing manly things, as we were created equal and neither girls nor boys are superior to one another. Being myself has become my true ambition. Never again will I worry about my value because of the issue of equality. Thank you, for indirectly making me more comfortable in my own skin. Whenever I hear the word equality now, I silently smile to myself thinking that our differences have a purpose. Equality no longer remains such an essential thing to me as I know now that fairness and belief in oneself are more important.
Level III Winners
Chava Bouchard, Individual Entry, Bloomington
(letter to Judy Blume, author of Forever…)
This student chose to keep her letter private.
Julia Du, Individual Entry, Afton
(letter to William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)
This student chose to keep her letter private.
Elizabeth Wilfahrt, New Ulm Public High School, New Ulm
(letter to Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451)
Dear Ray Bradbury,
While reading Fahrenheit 451, I realized how much I take for granted. I am an avid reader, I have been since I was six. I have learned countless lessons from books. Reading is one of the only things that helps me with my anxiety. I can put a space between myself and, well, me. A world where reading is illegal is completely unimaginable. I can’t fathom how much that would affect me, not to mention the rest of the world. Books are a source of knowledge; they’re a source of comfort. Take that away and you would take away a major part of many people’s lives. Reading and gathering information just seems so inherently human. By being curious, a person can gain happiness.
Guy’s life is full of color, but void of any emotion. The parlor walls are filled with more than enough color and sound. It’s the people who are empty. Those who are brave enough to possess books, and are found out, have their houses burnt to the ground by firemen like Guy. It disturbs me to think that I probably wouldn’t be one of those people. An uninformed, hollow, and simple life sounds rather peaceful. No need to worry about purpose or anything beyond the television schedule for the night. As Faber says, “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life” (Bradbury 79). When I read a book or story that stirs any sort of intense emotion in me it becomes part of me. I have never really considered how powerful it is that ink on paper, the words of a person that could live halfway around the world, have the ability to make me cry. Books can change the way I look at the world and people around me. I can read of far off places and travel through time. When I read, I can be whoever I want to be for just a moment. Although, I can’t help but hope I would go through some sort of big realization. A sudden “ah-ha moment”. Maybe a perfect life would be just a little too comfortable. Maybe I would become curious. A person who does not question their path will not go the right direction. Questions lead to problems, though. Why would I fix a life that is not broken? I would be comfortable; I would be happy. I would have my unhuman family, I would have my walls-not-walls, and I would have TV programs that would fill the room to the brim with their fake life. An empty life seems like it would be far more comfortable than I care to admit.
Your book has changed my view on life forever. The way I think of reading, the way I think of my freedom to do so, will never be the same. I am the master of my own thoughts. I don’t want to live as Millie, empty and afraid of being anything but. I wish to live as Clarisse does. I want to pluck dandelions and rub them under my chin to see if I’m in love, I want to be rebellious in my peacefulness and joy. To observe the world with fascination all my life would be a blessing. When Guy meets Clarisse she describes herself as “seventeen and crazy”. If tasting the rain as if it is fine wine and searching for the man on the moon every night as one searches for an old friend means being crazy, then I’ll gladly be crazy until I am eighty years old.
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 t