Programs like Changing Lives Through Literature and bibliotherapy-based rehabilitation programs often use literature to rehabilitate individuals who have committed crimes or experienced traumatic life events. While these programs demonstrate that an introduction to literature later in life is often successful, many groups are getting a head start in dealing with these issues by encouraging students to apply literature to their lives from an early age.
Letters About Literature, sponsored by the Library of Congress Center for the Book, is a national reading and writing promotional program for children and young adults that encourages students in grades 4-12 to think about the way literature has impacted their life. The program asks students to write a letter to the author of their favorite nonfiction or fiction book, short story, essay, poem, or speech and reflect on the following questions:
Did the content of the literature mirror your life in some way? What strengths or weaknesses do you share with the subject in your piece of literature? What did this literature show you about your world that you had never noticed before? What surprised you about yourself while you were reading the literature? Why was the literature meaningful to you?
Letters About Literature awards yearly prizes to the best essays from students in grades 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12. Winners receive a $500 Target gift card and a $10,000 grant for their community library.
Guiding students to examine the relationship between literature and their lives paves the way for continued practice later in life. Teachers and parents who encourage them to find literature with which to connect give them a place towards which to turn in trying times and provide a safe venue to explore the negative and positive consequences of life choices. Children and young adults will continue to make connections between themselves and the characters about which they read long into adulthood.
To read excerpts of two insightful student essays from the 2008 contest, click below to read more.
Puyallup, Washington sixth-grader McKenzie Dent, whose father spent a ten-month tour in Iraq, wrote about how Alice Mead’s novel Soldier Mom helped her cope during his absence:
My Dad didn’t leave me because he wanted to. Soldier Mom helped me to know that by Jas having similar experiences. I have realized that although the Army has taken my dad away for a year, it is his job to serve in the war and keep our country free. Jas knows and understands what it feels like to hate the fact that one of our parents are in the Army. We both wish that they had never joined.
Though Jas has her mom gone, and I have my dad gone, we both know what it feels like to have such an important role in your life not being filled. No one else in this world can understand the kind of pain that the soldier and his/her family are going through, unless they have had the same exact situation in their life.
Gabrielle Sclafani, a 10th grader from Barrington, Rhode Island, wrote her honorable mention letter to Wally Lamb, author of She’s Come Undone. Sclafani relates her struggle with the autoimmune disorder Wegener’s Granulomatosis with protagonist Dolores Price’s journey throughout the novel:
Reading about her struggles against herself and the humanity, or lack thereof, around her provided me with a telescopic view inside my own mind. After reading how Dolores deals with her rape, I saw that it wasn’t all that different from the way I reacted to my diagnosis. We both chose to hide from our circumstances and isolate ourselves from our loved ones. We felt, ultimately, that we had lost control. Dolores’s body may have been raped by a man, but I too was raped, at the hands of nature and modern medicine. When he prescribed the steroids, my doctor didn’t even look at me. Though I can never get inside his mind, I have a decent idea as to why. He was ashamed. He knew—as Jack did when he took advantage of Dolores—that my body would never again be my own….
But the blame I put on my doctor was ultimately a way for me to give my enemy a face—my true bête noire was my disease. It was easy for us to turn our hatred for our assailants into a hatred for ourselves, because it provided an outlet for the brutality we wished we could inflict on them. They got to escape, but we live with the memories of our pain each and every day.