Letters About Literature: Much more than just a contest

Letters About Literature: Much more than just a contest

What do you get when you combine books, students, writing and a national contest? You get hope for the future and the country, and the knowledge that we are all in good hands for the future.

Washington state has participated in the Letters About Literature contest since 2005, and it is a favorite for everyone who has experienced it.

What makes it so great is, simply put, the letters. Unlike the book reports we all remember from our school days, Letters About Literature asks students to write to an author, living or dead, about how a book changed their view of the world or themselves.

On the surface the question seems simple, but the results are phenomenal.  Every year we receive letters that are funny, revealing, deep, philosophical, and heartbreaking — sometimes all in one letter!

As a coordinator for the contest, I am mainly on the sidelines answering questions, tracking down missing packages, wrangling permission slips, and asking “how do you pronounce this student’s name?” I also get to hear things like, “I can’t tell you how excited the girls were when they heard they were semi-finalists.  I literally heard squeals and saw jumping up and down when they ran over to their classmates in the hallway!”  That’s nice work if you can get it!

Letters About Literature is a national contest, so the letters are first sent to the Library of Congress in that “other Washington.”

After two rounds of judging, the semifinalist letters are sent to judges in their home states. Right now we are in the thick of it, because the top 2018 letters have been returned to us.

In total 2,418 Washington students wrote Letters About Literature entries this year. By entry groups, 1,132 were from grades 4-6, 856 from grades 7-8, and 430 from grades 9-12. That’s a lot of letters!

Of those, 93 total letters were returned to Washington and are in the final round of judging. Our judges are authors, teachers, librarians, and even a former Secretary of State. Being a judge requires a love of books, an appreciation for children’s writing, and a desire to find hope in the future.

Why would someone want to be a judge? Jan Walsh, retired State Librarian and longtime Letters About Literature judge, offered an explanation that has been echoed by every judge I’ve spoken with.

“Having an opportunity to read these letters, to look into the lives of our students as reflected in their letters, is an affirmation that reading, learning, and thinking connect,” she said. “Each year, I am astounded by the younger generation’s letters and their view of the world. It gives me hope!”

This year’s winners have not yet been chosen, but if you want to experience that amazing sense of hope, I recommend taking a few minutes to read last year’s winning letters.  The Level 1 winner wrote her letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder about her book Little House on the Prairie.  The Level 2 winner wrote her letter to John Green about his book Looking for Alaska, and the Level 3 winner wrote her letter to Rudolfo Anaya about his book Bless Me, Ultima.

I guarantee that after reading them, you will be hungry for more letters from our talented Washington students. We will be announcing the 2018 Letters About Literature winners in April so come back, but you might want to have a handkerchief by your side.

— by Nono Burling, outreach librarian for the Washington State Library and co-coordinator for the Washington Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book.

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