Twenty-five years ago the Library of Congress introduced a way for children to express the impact that reading has had on their lives. That initiative, now known as Letters About Literature, is a national contest in which youngsters write a letter to an author, living or dead, describing how that person’s work has changed the way they see the world around them. Underwritten by a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, this program reaches tens of thousands of children in grades four through twelve each year and is operational in all fifty states.
Letters about Literature operates as a contest on two levels. Entries are first judged in their home states with winners and runners-up declared in each of three divisions (Grades 4–6, 7-8, and 9-12.) All contributing students are eligible for a certificate of participation. In addition, some states choose a variety of rewards including modest cash prizes, honorary ceremonies, and acknowledgment letters from high state officials. First place state entries are sent to the national competition, where winners in each category are determined. First place national winners of each division each receive a cash reward of $1,000; honor winners in each competition receive $200.
The Center for the Book of the Library of Congress oversees the contest, and the most comprehensive information about contest rules and submissions are posted on its website (http://www.read.gov/letters/). About half of the individual states also post additional local information on dedicated websites as well, providing a range of ancillary material such as past winners reading their letters (Colorado); an invitation from the Secretary of State (Illlinois); and a local author outlining the program (Texas.)
The beauty of this program lies in its simplicity. Youngsters follow the old adage of writing about what they know; they engage in purposeful, personal, and reflective writing directed toward a specific audience. Their letters sound more like conversations than class assignments, and, for many, the idea that someone wants their opinion is a powerful one.
These letters, addressed to authors of both fiction and nonfiction, vary as much as children do. In the recent past, addressed authors have varied from Robert Lawson to J. K. Rowling to Elie Wiesel. Catherine Gourley recently edited a sampling of such letters in Journeys: Young Readers’ Letters to Authors Who Changed Their Lives showing how youngsters find friends, their voices, and their places in their world through the books they read.
Librarians can, of course, inform their patrons about the program or offer support to participants. But, with the wealth of instructional material provided on the Library of Congress website, including specific teaching suggestions, sample letters, and a well constructed discussion structure, we can easily choose to run the contest through special programs with, for example, existing Teen Advisory Groups or groups of home schoolers. Last year I invited all interested fourth and fifth graders to meet in the library once a week to eat lunch and discuss the program. Each week we talked about one aspect of letter writing and even though the entrance and exit requirements for our “lunch bunch” meetings became more involved and participation dropped throughout the semester, several students submitted letters with great pride and a real sense of accomplishment.
As children’s librarians, this is what we’re about: reading, thinking, and writing. And although we offer a myriad of services and materials, our book collections remain the coin of the realm. Letters About Literature is a terrific place to spend those riches.
What a great way to spend our riches.
Courley, Catherine, editor. Journeys: Young Readers’ Letters to Authors Who Changed Their Lives. Sommerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick, 2017.
Letters About Literature. http://www.read.gov/letters/ Last accessed September 27, 2017.
Professor Emerita, Texas Woman’s University