Journeys: Young Readers Letters

One of my favorite activities to do with junior high students came from the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Each year, in a Letters About Literature contest, students wrote to an author, living or dead, telling him or her how the author’s book had changed or influenced their lives. The challenge often lay in convincing students not to write a book report but to chat with the author, reacting to words that were meaningful to them. Once they understood the object, the authors they chose and personal applications were wide-ranging and extremely interesting to their teacher.

Now Candlewick has produced a book, Journeys: Young Readers Letters to Authors Who Have Changed Their Lives, with selections from the contest’s national winners in three age categories – upper elementary, middle school, and high school, grouped by ages and within those ages by stages of a journey – destination, realization, and return home. Student selections range from classic writers like Robert Frost and Anne Frank to modern writers like J. K. Rowling and Laurie Halse Anderson. Just in case the reader is not familiar with the work the student references, a short passage about the work and author come before each reader’s letter. Editors did minimal editing in order to retain the student writer’s voice.  

Jayanth responds to Sharon Draper’s book Out of My Mind by describing how the book helped her understand the survival instinct of her brother who has a form of autism causing difficulty expressing himself.   Anna takes on several levels of understanding from Shel Silvestein’s poem “Hug o’War,” – first when she was seven and it brought a reminder of a lost tooth in a tug of war with her brother, second when she was nine for the camaraderie she felt as she shared it in a class recitation and the idea of being kinder to each other came through, and finally as a current eleven-year-old with a greater message for the world at large. Becky, who lost her mother to cancer a month before she wrote the letter, finds comfort in remembering her mother’s voice as she picks up an old favorite, Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

I recommend the book to students and teachers who participate in the contest each year for models of responses to authors. Beyond that, the variety makes a good read for anyone looking for ways books change readers or for those seeking book selections for themselves or as gifts for young people in upper elementary through high school.

Before I leave this review entirely, I must say I was extremely proud the year one of my students placed third in the Louisiana contest and had an event at the local library where a representative of the Louisiana State Libraries presented her award.


About that Eulogy

Is life conspiring to tell me something about death? Our recent two-week trip to see national parks out west began with a visit to a long-time friend who had recently lost her husband. While on the trip, we received three notices of deaths among friends or their families. Shortly after we arrived at home, we learned that one of Al’s classmates had died.

As if this wasn’t enough to get my attention, I opened my most recent Poets and Writers magazine to find an article “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story” by Edwidge Danticat taken from her book by the same name. In the article, she focuses on her own mother’s death. She brings up the possibility of writing one’s own eulogy while one is healthy and death is still an abstraction and suggests that writing or talking about one’s death makes one an active participant in one’s own life.

In her take, Death is not always the enemy, nor was it the adversary in all the messages we received. Sorrow was a presence in all of them sandwiched as they were before, during, and after our trip, but some were also merciful releases from pain and suffering. I didn’t apply any of these deaths to myself, however, until I read the article.

Obviously, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that I write a variety of things. However, my eulogy is not going to be one of them. As I’ve mulled this over, I’ve come up with a plan which I will suggest for your consideration if should you outlive me – not that I expect this to happen any time soon. Skip the eulogy, and throw a party. Discuss a few books we’ve shared. Talk about the good times we had together. Laugh at my human frailties, applying forgiveness where needed.

Edwidge closes her article with a Haitian expression that means “over the water” and can mean someone has traveled abroad or has died. If I’m where I expect to be once this life has ended, I’ll look down from over the water and enjoy the celebration.


Poe: Stories and Poems

When I began to think how to review Gareth Hinds’s unusual rendition of Poe: Stories and Poems, I thought of the old bridal tradition of something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

The old was obvious since Hinds takes the classic poems and short stories of Edgar Allan Poe for his graphic representations. Poe lived from 1809-1849 so there’s no question that these creations written more than a hundred years ago are aged.

The new is what he does with them. As he adds new graphic art to these seven old treasures, I was a bit skeptical about whether a visual would enhance Poe’s work, but convincing me didn’t take long. Before the stories and poems even start, the Raven sits on a spiky fence with an ominous tree branch behind him crossing the moon. I could almost hear him calling, “Nevermore.”

I would have thought “The Pit and the Pendulum” could not get any more terrifying than when I first read it, but as the sharp steel crescent of the pendulum grazes the protagonist’s chest in Hind’s picture, I found myself gasping. Other graphics for other works are equally impressive.

Something borrowed? These are Edgar Allan Poe’s works after all.

And blue? Maybe it’s not the use found in the bridal rhyme, but “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” conjure up feelings of being blue in their original state. Gareth Hinds turns that blue so dark it becomes navy with his rendition of the Raven atop Poe’s tombstone in the cemetery and in the series of pictures to make Annabel’s grave in the sea.

Poe and Hinds turn out a happy marriage, if I may carry the metaphor so far. If you love Poe, don’t miss this!

Historic notes at the end are interesting to any reader, but especially helpful for the teacher or librarian who wants to use this book with a class.



Brian, our national parks tour guide, caught himself halfway through the word “tunnel” and moved on to describe the rest of our morning, but I heard. I’m assuming he’s had those on other trips who were fearful of tunnels. In this case, the only way into Zion National Park was through what he called a “practice tunnel” and then a longer one. His plan seemed to involve not letting us know until we were trapped and moving on the bus. By that time, the tunnel could not be escaped.

I used my new tricube pattern to describe it. (In case you need a reminder, it is 3 syllables per line x 3 lines per stanza x 3 stanzas = 1 tricube.)

Dark tunnel

Up ahead



Black as night

How far through?

Proceed in.


Facing fear

Quickest way

To the light.


Truth is Brian was just having a little fun with his travelers. He went on to point out occasional small windows to peer outside or take a picture as we passed through the darkness.

Should we have chosen to let our fear win out, what could we have missed? Only this:


Pieces of Happiness

Can life begin again from a new perspective for five old high school friends after the age of sixty? Newly widowed Kat sends an invitation to Sina, Maya, Ingrid, and Lisbeth to join her in Fiji and find out. Each accepts and brings a lifetime, with roots in their early years, in need of sorting out together. Pieces of Happiness by Anne Ostby follows the women as they look to answer the question.

There is single mother Sina with the son she chose to keep over her mother’s objections after a teenage pregnancy, a son now 50 years old and still expecting financial bailout from his mother. Maya comes as early onset Alzheimer’s Disease begins its destruction of her mind and body. Ingrid arrives with her less inhibited alter ego seeking to emerge. Lisbeth, who seemingly has had it all, needs to find out who she really is now that youthful beauty becomes harder to maintain. And Kat herself, who has lived the maverick lifestyle in the interim and issues the invitation, has unresolved secrets. Will renewing the old friendships give them a new lease on life? Do they want to stay and start a chocolate business together? 

The story line rotates among the friends and a secondary character Ateca, Kat’s housekeeper. Ateca sees and understands each of the group and the dynamics of their interaction together and may be my favorite character. Speaking her wisdom periodically through prayer, she mingles her concern for the women with her own hopes that her son Vilivo can find work and start a family. “Calm Madam Sina’s worries for her child, dear Lord. And calm my worries for Vilivo. Let him find work, so he can support himself, become an adult, and start a family. In Jesus holy name. Emeni.”  

The author, Norwegian Anne Ostby, is a world citizen herself having lived in several countries and writes often on themes of finding identity in a country not one’s own. The book publication is international with the English translation done by her daughter Marie.

Pieces of Happiness is a good read that can be appropriately enhanced by pairing it with some fine chocolate.