Have you ever loved a book so much that you had a conversation with it, or with its author, explaining what the work meant to you? Many readers have felt that way over and over again. This winter, our seventh and eighth graders had a chance to express their thoughts and feelings about a literary work through the Letters About Literature program.
The program was called to my attention by a parent as well by an advisor, at about the same time– giving it some credibility right from the start! Sponsored by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, the program asks students to write a letter to the author (living or dead) of a book, poem or speech, and explain what the work meant to them. Our students chose recently read works and also some works from early childhood when they wrote.
Advisor Malorie Seeley-Sherwood summed up her group’s efforts like this:
My advisees chose a range of authors to address: many wrote to contemporary authors like Ingrid Law, John Green, Mark Haddon, Ellen Hopkins, and Veronica Roth, but some chose to write to authors of classic books, like Harper Lee (who happened to write our summer read). Others wrote to authors of childhood favorites, like Fireboat and The Missing Mitten Mystery, recalling early memories of reading. All students discussed the ways in which these authors and their works changed students’ perspectives in one way or another. Whomever their choice of author, all letters were thoughtfully written and heartfelt.
As part of the activity, which took several advisory periods, students listened to an NPR Morning Edition piece about WWII soldiers who used pocket size books to help them get through the difficulties of the battlefield. The books, classic and contemporary, were published specifically for active servicemen, and were the recent subject of a new book called When Books Went to War. As she researched the topic, author Molly Guptill Manning found veterans who expressed how meaningful the books were to them. Our students, whose letters were already drafted when they listened to the NPR piece, were inspired by the soldiers’ stories.
Recent research has shown a connection between fiction readers and the ability to empathize. Anyone who has read with students, or discussed a good book with friends, probably already knew this– but it is nice to see the brain research to back up the conventional wisdom.
The Letters About Literature project is a contest, though that is the least of its merits as an activity. Our students’ letters were sent off to the program at the Library of Congress, and it will be a while before any of the nationwide participants hear from the organizers. Advisor Jake Lahey summed up the benefits of our participation, regardless of the contest results:
I was truly impressed by the level of empathy and self-reflection this exercise brought out in my advisees. Not only did they connect with characters in the books they chose, but they also engaged in how this book changed them as people; not an easy thing to do. Lastly, they were able to write directly to the author, which is just a cool approach. They’ve all won already.
Many thanks to the seventh and eighth grade advisors who spent time with advisees reading, commenting and editing the letters!