By AUDREY FISCHER
From 48,000 entries nationwide, six winning letters written by students in grades 5 through 12 to their favorite authors were selected to be read at the National Book Festival.
Sponsored by Target, in association with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Letters About Literature essay contest gives young people the opportunity to express how books changed their lives.
The national winners each received a $500 Target gift card and a trip to Washington to visit the White House and the Library of Congress and participate in the National Book Festival.
In poignant prose, the students each articulated how they made a powerful connection to a character or theme.
For Phillip Brockman, it was one line from Michael Crichton's "Sphere" that "popped out of the page, danced around me and hit me on the head." The line was: "The ability to imagine is the largest part of what you call intelligence."
The sixth-grader from Thompson, N.D., realized that his capacity to imagine, which was infinite in childhood, "diminished as my obligations grew." Activities like violin, tae kwon do, math club and studying for tests "left little time to dream and imagine."
From Crichton's middle-aged character, Norman Johnson, Brockman learned that "the power of imagining is one of the strongest forces on Earth." To the author, Brockman wrote, "'Sphere' helped relight the candle of imagination inside of me. With this rejuvenated light, I can see the color in the world. Now, it is up to me to keep that flame burning bright. Thank you for brightening the world."
From Parvana, a character in Deborah Ellis' "The Breadwinner," Britney Titensor learned "a great lesson about understanding people who are different."
The polar opposite of this sixth-grader from Thayne, Wyo., Parvana is an Afghan girl without ready access to books and education. Yet in her, the reader found a friend forever.
To the author she wrote, "Each day as Parvana and I journeyed into the marketplace, we began to connect. I could understand the responsibility she felt to provide food for her younger brother and sister because I, too, have younger siblings that I care for. My friendship with this young Afghan girl has changed me and my reaction to people I meet. You have given me a friend. You have given me Parvana, and Parvana will always be a part of who I have become."
Like Jody, in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "The Yearling," Lacie Craven, an eighth-grader from Bucks Harbor, Maine, lives on a farm and regards the animals as friends. Although she had experienced the death of animals on many occasions, she continued to struggle with it.
"After each death it feels like you lost a child. It is so devastating. I cry and feel like I did something wrong, like I could have prevented their deaths." After continually asking "why" such things happen, the teenager told Rawlings, "The answer came in your book."
From Jody and his fawn Flag, Craven learned that "All my lambs had been working unintentionally to help me be who I am today, and who I will be. They taught me how to deal with challenges in my life, how to overcome them. For every sad thing, there's a happy reason behind it and it makes us stronger people."
It took a while for Jeehyun Choi, a high school junior from St. Paul, Minn., to identify with the grotesque family depicted by Peter Hedges in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" But when it hit her, she was "sucked into the story like a ship in a whirlpool. I couldn't stop thinking about the broken Grape family."
In Gilbert, she found "the most humane character I have ever come across in a book. He is honest but has secrets. He carries love with hatred, he feels loneliness with solitude, and he has gentleness in anger. Although we lived in totally different situations, his thoughts and fears were the mirror image of my own. He was me."
To the author she wrote, "Thank you, Mr. Hedges, for reminding me how much I loved my family at a time when I was detached from them."
Like many teenagers who came of age during the years since the 1951 publication of "The Catcher in the Rye," Martha Park forged a powerful connection with the iconic Holden Caulfield. To author J.D. Salinger, the high school junior from Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Memphis, Tenn., wrote, "This city is dead weight waiting for a transformation. This city is a sad collection of lights and empty laughter in opaque glass bottles on the side of the road. This city is running fast toward the edge of a cliff. This is a city in need of a Holden Caulfield."
In a powerful, evocative letter, Park thanked Salinger for giving her Holden. From him she learned to be true to herself and to leave her mark.
"Uncapping my marker, I look carefully for a space on the wall, and when I find it, I leave my own message: Holden Caulfield was here. And he is. He's in me and he's in this city and he's in the healing that must take place here."
Sophia Harrington had the thrill of reading her letter directly to Peter Jenkins, author of "Walk Across America," who attended the National Book Festival. Jenkins, along with the audience, was visibly moved by the experience.
An eighth-grader from West Hartford, Conn., Harrington walked across the country with Jenkins without leaving her home and found it to be "an experience and a half."
To Jenkins, who joined her on stage, Harrington read, "The book I read was not a travel guide, or even a wannabe travel guide. It was the real deal and it poured like rich dark molasses from your very own soul. Your experiences were like one novel after the other. Families are poor but turn to each other for love. Rundown country stores attract the world's most eclectic characters. Everything fits together like a puzzle. That puzzle is not headline America; it's the country made up of everyday citizens that love to play cards, take pride in their day job at the carwash, and use engine parts as lawn decorations; it's real."
On a journey seen through Jenkins' eyes, Harrington found home.
"I knew that this was the real America. Whether it is harsh or beautiful and maybe a little out there, it's the truth. The plain truth is what counts the most. Through truthful experiences and detailed writing, you showed me the most undressed and honest parts of my very own homeland."