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.