Letters About Literature is an annual reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12 sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. For the contest, students are asked to read a book, poem or speech and write a letter to that author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally.
Tens of thousands of students from across the country enter Letters About Literature each year, and winners receive state and national recognition. The contest combines three important writing strategies: responding to literature through writing, addressing the author, and writing to an external audience.
Each state has its own panel of judges, who select semi-finalists and finalists. State finalists receive cash prizes and go on to national level competition. A a panel of judges at the National Center for the Book reads essays that make it to the national level. They select one winner and one runner up at each level (high school, middle school, and upper elementary) that win a national awards and cash prize.
The Maine Humanities Council, which is the local representative for this national contest, recently announced the 39 semi-finalists in Maine (out of 1,104 entries), only fourteen of which are in grades 9-12. Of these 39, seven Lincoln Academy tenth grade students were recognized for the 2015 Letters About Literature Contest: Abby Berryman (Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique), Evan Eckel (Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Thalia Eddyblouin (Tristan and Iseult), Lumin Phan (Nabokov’s Lolita), Julianna Preston (Golding’s Lord of the Flies), Carly Ransdell (Stein’s Three Lives), and Anna Sirois (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby).
Sophomore Honors English teacher Seth Anderson assigned this project in his honors English class and submitted the essays to the national contest. In an essay about why he assigns classics to 10th graders, and why this kind of reading and writing is an essential part of a modern education, Mr. Anderson quotes Italo Calvino, an Italian author who wrote a well-known essay entitled “Why Read the Classics” (New York Review of Books, October 9, 1986).
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say…. [classics] exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”
Mr Anderson writes, “these Letters about Literature prove Calvino’s views on the power of classic literature to ‘discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way.’ In my sophomore class, each student chooses four classics to read throughout the year, in addition to texts covered in class, and we spread out in the Dining Commons to write an on-demand essay responding to an Advanced Placement Literature prompt that may ask students to analyze how the opening scene of a novel is emblematic of the text as a whole or how an author employs minor characters to advance specific themes. The Letters About Literature contest serves as one of our prompts. And I submit them all to the contest.”
Here are some examples of what the winning writers said to their chosen author.
Evan Eckel wrote to Arthur C. Clarke that after reading 2001: A Space Odyssey he questioned his own place in the Cosmos: “Thinking about how immense the universe is occasionally leads a person to another question: how do I would fit in the universe? […] I found that it had me pondering the great vision of the larger universe and the concept that we are only a small speck to the whole. We are in proportion just a small atom to the size of the universe[…] we can only see 48 billion light years away. Beyond that we have no idea, although it is accepted that space is always expanding. I found the thought of it quite overwhelming, forcing me to look at how I fit into this picture. One human to a universe so big, it is hard to put into words.”
Julianna Preston has pondered the age old question of the presence of “evil” in the world for many years, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies offered one possibility: “Part of the answer [to evil], I found in your book. Lord of the Flies depicts the transformation of a group of young, innocent boys as they become wicked and savage. This behavior is not learned, but innate; a part of human nature. When Ralph weeps for “the darkness of man’s heart,” he is lamenting this inherent evil that lies in ourselves. I related this evil, this “beast,” to the idea of inborn sin. Perhaps we are not “born sinners” because we have somehow committed an act of evil before birth, but because there is a cruel, wild, and untamable part of our conscience that can only be bridled for so long. This aspect of our being is made up of primitive instincts and behaviors which we once needed for survival.
Lumin Phan, after reading Nabokov’s Lolita, understood how much he is “bonded to society,” and Anna Sirois became more conscious of the power of materialism upon reading The Great Gatsby. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives challenged Carly Ransdell’s notion of the human urge to conform to a norm: “I now understand that no life will ever be the same, because each life brings a new soul to the table to create ideas, thoughts, and perspectives which are indubitably different.” And, finally, Abby Berryman found strength to eschew the concept of “the perfect ‘feminine’ woman” after reading Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as she understood that “[t]his image was a facade, nothing more, and holding myself up to some unreasonable standard imposed by the media obviously had extremely detrimental effects.”
Seth Anderson believes that reading classics and writing about them is an essential part of students’ intellectual development. He writes, “without a doubt, these chosen classics have concealed themselves in the “folds of memory,” and will be stalwart companions for these students as they journey through this ever expanding phenomenon we call Life. They will never be lonely.”