2012 Level 3 State Winners
Letter to Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Dear Stephen Chbosky, Dear friend,
I think that it would be best if before you know why it is that a random teenager is writing to you about why your book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is one of her most prized and adored possessions, you know who she is. My name is Amy Sawyer. I am 14, quirky, a daydreamer, and I believe that the power of words is unparalleled; perhaps odd traits to put for one's self but nonetheless completely truthful ones. Books are treasures to me and I'm sure that I have read hundreds by now, all of which I could tell you the plot of. But far too often these stories do not stop me in my tracks and make me assess my life or change me in any way, shape, or form; yours did.
Before your book I was Charlie, in a sense. I was a bit awkward and reticent. I would have much rather watched the world go round as if I were watching a movie, instead of hopping on the roller coaster of life and living the adventure. Now that you know me, let's begin with how I happened upon your book.
It was halfway through the summer before my freshman year of high school and I was in the greatest place on Earth (at least in my opinion), Barnes and Noble. Scanning through the hundreds of books like every other visit, I literally bumped into one on the table in an isle while reading the back of another book (you can add clumsy to the list of traits). This caused one of the books that teetered on the edge of the overflowing table to topple onto the carpet. Naturally I couldn't just leave it so I picked it up and read the title. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, what did that mean? It had sparked my interest and the rest is history.
I have spent several minutes, hours even, pondering exactly what it is about your book that changed me, and after all that thinking I believe that I have found the reason. Charlie addresses the reader as a friend and immediately gives you a description of people he needs to exist in the world. When I read this I wanted to be one of those people and that is why I read this book differently. Not like I read it backwards or from right to left, but I read it as unbiased as I could because Charlie asked for someone who understood, and I so desperately wanted to understand. I didn't judge anything about the book or the characters as I would have if my opinions were in mind. I wanted to be that understanding person that is looked to for strength whether I was or not. Through this lens of reading I learned with Charlie and grew with him. I realized that you'll never truly live if you're afraid of life.
This year I have tried to not be a wallflower and talk to people that I've never met before purely because I want to know them or that they are there. Now I don't walk into a classroom and inwardly groan whenever there is nobody I know or go through a whole school day without speaking more than 20 words. These things may seem a bit juvenile to you but to me these are life changing. I have made so many new friends and no longer shy away from others. I have joined drama class, a decision that would have seemed unfathomable but now is the best hour of my day.
Since this is the first and last you will probably ever hear from me I want you to know three things. First, that "asleep" is one of the greatest songs ever to listen to when I am reading. Second, that I now live for those moments when I feel infinite. And finally, that I think I know how it's possible to be both happy and sad at the same time. So thank you for that because it is truly a wonderfully tragic feeling.
May you and your story remain infinite,
Amy Sawyer, Recovered Wallflower
Letter to Karl Marx, Essential Writings of Karl Marx
Dear Karl Marx,
I read your essential writings, which were edited with an introduction and notes by David Caute. Your writings have taught me numerous ideas about the world I couldn't have dreamed about knowing. You have outlined nearly every single aspect wrong with our capitalistic society. You predicted over one hundred years in the future the struggles of this doomed system of economy and government. Although the end has yet to come, the struggles of our country are very evident to those with a keen eye. I now realize how the bourgeois' dominance of the proletariat and the subsequent revolution by the latter class is inevitable. They have made me disgusted by our politician's hypocrisy.
Your writings also taught me about myself. They taught me that all the comforts of my life are not sustainable and will surely be short lived. They taught me that I should not desire to be the wealthy capitalist, but the member of the workers union, fighting for better wages and conditions. But what your writings taught me most of all is to never let money become the singular matter of importance in my life. You have written how money destroys the importance of familial bonds and replaces it with a desire to obtain material wealth. Your writings also point out the inevitable destruction of our environment if our government continues to exploit it for capital gain.
These writings surprised me by how ignorant I really am. I have an extremely long way to go before I fully understand any of your theories. I was also surprised while reading, how far I have been sucked into the false desires that are encouraged in America today. It was shocking to realize how much worth, how much faith I have in simple pieces of paper, and what I can get with them. Also what kind of respect I have for wealth and property. Are these really the measurements for how much a man is worth? It seems as if no amount of honor and moral soundness is worth the fame and fortune these days.
These works are very meaningful to me. They have given me no small amount of indispensable knowledge. And I will attempt to use this knowledge to combat the evils that surround me, and to further the agenda of goodness the best I can. I can place no value on these writings nor can I recommend them enough to those who have a desire to know, and those who yearn for an explanation of this troublesome world.
Sincerely, Tristin Ott
Letter to J.K. Rowling, "Harry Potter" series
Dear J.K. Rowling,
I've been sitting at my desk for the last hour trying to think of a book that has impacted my life enough to write about it. Although the Harry Potter series is my favorite series, the actual books didn't impact me very much, no offense. What impacted me was the experience of reading them with my dad and sister.
When I was about five we started reading the first book. My sister and I would listen to my dad read it aloud. The first movie had already come out, but my dad wouldn't let us watch it until we read the book, so we read a part in the book and then watched the corresponding part in the movie. When we first watched the movie my parents wouldn't let me watch the part where Harry goes into the woods and sees Voldemort drinking the blood out of a unicorn. At the time it really bummed me out. I was super mad that they didn't think I could handle it. I was five; I thought I was big enough to see it. To this day that scene still freaks me out.
Once we caught up to the books being released, my family would go to the Barnes and Noble midnight release party. Every time a book was about to get released my mom, sister and I would sit in a huge line outside of Barnes and Noble to get tickets. Then on the release night we would all go to the party. My sister and I would dress up like characters in the book. For the Deathly Hallows party we went as Fred and George Weasley. We dyed our hair orange and got Gryffindor robes. We even got wands (which I learned later were just drum sticks). One of the local news stations was at Barnes and Noble reporting on how huge the book was and the reporter interviewed us about it. I was 10 and had never been on camera so I was pretty nervous. I couldn't finish my sentences so my sister completed them for me. It ended up working out because the twins do that. It was pretty fun. Oh and you can really tell how fake reporters laughs are when you're in person, even when you're ten.
After we got the book at midnight my sister and I made my dad read all the way home and for hours into the night. He would tell us he had to stop because he was losing his voice, but we made him keep reading. We read it every chance we got. At night my dad would keep reading until one of us fell asleep, usually me, and then I'd wake up and pretend I wasn't sleeping so he would keep reading.
Although I don't like to admit it, a lot of my favorite memories from when I was a kid are from Harry Potter. It was really fun and it was good family time. We don't have enough of that anymore.
Letter to James Patterson, Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment
Dear James Patterson,
Countless times I’ve read your book, Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, and countless times I’ve gotten lost between the pages and couldn’t care less about being found. The first time I picked up your book, I only wanted a fun, thrilling adventure story to pass the time. But as the story progressed, I felt a deeper connection between the characters and I, sprouting like the roots of a giant oak tree. I might not have 2% Avian DNA or enormous wings, but the situations that occur in the story could happen to me or anyone trying to find their place in the world; it's just a different perspective of obstacles that people face everyday.
The erasers in the story that hunts down Max and her family, taunting them, hurting them, they were my first connection. When Max and her family were running away from the Erasers, I saw myself taking a different hallway to avoid someone. When Max and her family faced the Erasers head-on, I saw myself confronting those whispers. And then it hit me out of nowhere like a slap to the face; Erasers exist in our society. Even though the erasers were there to make every obstacle Max faced even more difficult, Max found a way to stand up for herself, and so can all the victims of bullying in our society. Through your book, you expressed the importance of every single individual in a very captivating way. It’s hard to think that there are so many people committing suicide because they never found the courage to stand up to their Eraser.
At the time I was reading your book, my family was in a bit of a rut. My dad, the main provider of the family, lost his job. We had to cut back on a lot of things and I couldn't help but think, "What's going to happen to us?" This is where my second connection came in. Your story made me realize that the mountains that stand in our way, are actually climbable. Sure, looking up from the bottom of the mountain, not knowing exactly how high it is, can be scary, but that's okay. The important thing is to take that initiative step and begin the climb. Max taught me that you have to get back up on your feet even when the wind has been knocked out of your lungs and you're desperately gasping for air. I realized that even though our family was in a difficult position, we eventually got up. My dad found a job and I have to say, the view up here is pretty amazing.
Even now, I'm still lost between your pages, the story woven deep within me. So thank you, Mr. Patterson, for getting me through some tough times, and making me realize some of the little things in life. The Maximum Ride series will always be my all-time favorite book series. I should think about getting a new copy of this book...mine's getting just a little too tattered...
2012 Level 3 State Winners
Letter to Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried
Dear Tim O'Brien,
A $12 digital watch from Target. A bottle of Ibuprofen. A heart-shaped gold ring my Mom wore when she was a teenager. Vanilla-scented hand lotion. The memory of my mom lying lifeless and still on a hospital bed, her cold hands no longer squeezing back. A shoebox containing a lifetime of letters, some creased, worn, and stained with tears. My sister's sleepy but comforting voice through the phone at 2 AM, when I lie awake, haunted by the past and crippled by fears. I know. It will be okay. I love you.
These are the things I carry.
Two years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, my Mom had a sudden heart attack while running. She collapsed on the side of the road and died instantly. My English class read The Things They Carried a few months later. What I expected was just another book about war. What I found was a message that spoke directly to my soul. Your book came when I felt my suburban town was the quintessential land of lollipops and ignorance, when I feared real pain and heartache were foreign to everyone but me. It came when I needed it the most.
I've wanted to become a writer ever since I could remember. Yet after the death of my mom, words seemed weak and cruelly useless. After all, a world where my Mom could have a physical and be characterized as the "picture of perfect health" and then die a week later was not a world in which words were valuable. Writing could not change the past. Writing could not change anything. That was what I thought until I read your book.
I was not even alive during the Vietnam War, yet you brought me to that place. Through Rat Kiley's torture of the baby water buffalo, you stunned me with a gruesome physical image of emotional grief. If you could help me understand a war fought halfway across the world three decades before I was born, maybe I too could reach others with my words.
You tell a story about Norman Bowker returning from war. He overflows with terrible memories and stories, yet he has no one to tell. His father never asks. His neighbors never ask. No one ever asks. This is how I felt after my mom died. My naive and trusting demeanor shattered, I could no longer view the world the same way. I was annoyed, even angry at the unchanged dynamics at school and with my friends. My life had just been ripped apart and in those first intense months of grief, it seemed as though no one even noticed.
Worst of all, no one asked about my mom. People were so afraid of saying something wrong they closed their mouths and kept it that way. It was as if my mom: who woke up every morning to run because it made her feel alive, who spent hours in her garden, who sang in the kitchen as she washed dishes, who loved her children so much she lay awake at night worrying about us, it was as if this woman had never existed.
I could not understand this but I was being forced to accept it. When the soldier eventually killed himself, I was jolted awake. Why are death, war, and loss such taboo subjects? Why must we bury them down deep inside, cover our fears and uncertainties with a strained smile, and ignore a whole part of ourselves? No longer was I going to hide the past and the pain. I wouldn't give up because people were unwilling to listen. I would spin words into poetry and attempt to define the indefinable. Circumstances had broken my heart, weighed down my shoulders, and given me a life-long burden to carry. Yet I was unwilling to succumb to the same fate as the disillusioned soldier. I would not be shattered.
Your last chapter simultaneously opened fresh wounds and gave me the first real comfort since my mom's death. I cried when Linda died. It was tragic. She was so young. I thought of my Mom and it was almost unbearable. However, I realized from your book that stories could keep a person alive. Stories allow us to visit the past how it was: untainted in its beauty and unmarked by death or struggle.
Thank you for telling these stories, Mr. O'Brien. Thank you for the painfully honest and emotional descriptions of war. Thank you forgiving me comfort and hope in a time that was clouded by darkness and uncertainty. Your poignant words in The Things They Carried will forever be included in the things I carry. You helped me see that I am not alone.
Letter to Joan Larkin, editor of A Woman Like That: Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories
Dear Joan Larkin,
After reading the first two sentences of the introduction, my heart was racing and my palms were sweating. I had to put the book down for a second- it was just too real. The words you were writing and the feelings you were describing were so eerily familiar. It was on that day that I realized I could no longer turn away from my true self.
I first came across your book in the seldom-used shelves of my school library. I was looking for a book for history class, but then another book caught my eye. Its purple spine read: A Woman Like That: Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories, edited by Joan Larkin. Without thinking, I grabbed the book and proceeded to the check-out desk.
This book came at a difficult time in my life. That last Winter, I had fallen deeply in love with my female best friend. This experience brought out the feelings and questions about my sexuality I had been suppressing for most of my teens. I was starting to grapple with the fact that I was a lesbian, and I knew I would not be accepted by everyone in my life. I didn't want the stereotypes, the raised-eyebrows, and the judgments that came with homosexuality. I was always careful not to do anything to give myself away, frightened that people at school would somehow find out. I was finally exploring an important aspect of myself, and I felt so alone.
I found the comfort and community I needed in your book. For me, reading has always been a sanctuary. I love the way a writer's words can transcend thousands of miles and years and fill that place in your heart. The stories you compiled did just that for me. Reading the coming-out stories of writers like Leslea Newman and Joan Nestle showed me that I was not alone, that hundreds of creative and talented women have dealt with the same doubts and fears that I have now. Their words resonated with me and told me that I was perfect, just the way I am.
This book was exactly what I needed. Reading these stories gave me the courage to accept myself and start being honest with those I loved. In October, I came out to my friends and family. I was not pleased with all the reactions I got, but I am giving them space and time to understand. I feel relieved, honest, and happy for the first time in a long time. A Woman Like That truly gave me the strength I needed to open a new chapter in my life.
Letter to Elie Wiesel, author of Night
Dear Elie Wiesel,
Joseph Stalin once said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." And that is indeed true. The Holocaust—the systemic mass murder of 6 million Jews and other undesirables—was a terrible event in history.. .yet, as a privileged teenager living in this modern era, it was extremely difficult for me to grasp. But after I read your book, Night, my views were deeply and forever changed.
I believe that to truly understand what happened to Jews and others behind those barbed wire fences, one must look at it from a more personal perspective, not broad and dispassionately, as how I was taught in school. What your book brought to me was exactly what I needed: a single voice and an honest account. Your memoirs opened a small window into history through which I witnessed the shocking events of a great wrong against humanity.
When I first laid eyes on that thin volume, Mr. Wiesel, I was 15 years old.. .the same age as you were when you were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But as for me, I could not imagine being shipped off into the mysterious night, inhabiting the shadows of a crowded cattle car for days in the unbearable heat and stench of fellow passengers, only to be torn away from my family upon arrival to the death camp. Yet that is exactly what happened to you in Night.
When I read your book in the 9th grade, I was moved and astounded. I simply could not conceive of the horrors you and your father endured at the concentration camps. Nor can I now, less than a year later; indeed, I believe I will likely never be able to truly fathom the breadth of such unforgivable acts of inhumanity that were committed.
As I was reading, one character in your book instantly stuck out to me: Juliek. As a pianist and fellow musician, I instantly bonded with him as I had with no other character. To carry a violin for more than 20 grueling kilometers! In my English class, my teacher could not seem to get over that fact. But when I read that passage, I instantly understood. If someone had asked me if I would be willing to tug along my own beloved instrument along the same harrowing route, my instinctive reaction would undoubtedly be, "Of course I would!" Although the reality is that I could probably never accomplish such a feat, Juliek's intense love and enormous devotion for his violin humanized him into a sort of musical companion for me, making me realize the cruel reality that he and the others faced during the death march.
One passage in particular remains with me: the scene in which Juliek plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto after the long trek; his most significant—and last—concert to be performed. That moment was when the terrible truth of the Holocaust struck me. As a lover of classical music, I distinctly remember the first time I listened to that concerto.
It was after my grandpa died, when my grandma had given me his classical CD collection. As I browsed through it, I spotted a recording with the great Arthur Grimaux, and carefully, I placed the disc into the player. It is all very clear in my mind: it was on a school night, quite late. The room was dark, save the glow of a fluorescent lamp. I sat on the floor, knees tucked to my chest and my back against the bed, not knowing what to expect.
The CD player began humming, and the orchestra commenced, broad and majestic. Soon, the solo violin entered, pure and delicate and beautiful. That night I cried, both for my deceased grandfather and the music. A few months later, when I read that passage in Night, tears swelled again to my eyes. I imagined Juliek—thin and emaciated, soon to greet the clutches of long awaited Death—standing in the shadows of bodies with his violin tucked under his chin as he gently draws the tattered bow over the rusty strings, the melody of the soulful Larghetto singing mournfully into the darkness...
Mr. Wiesel, Night has had a profound impact on me. Initially, as a Chinese-American student living in Minnesota, I felt detached from the Holocaust. Intellectually, I was informed; personally, I was indifferent. And indifference, you declared in one of your speeches, is "more dangerous than anger and hatred." But after reading your book, I was anything but indifferent. Through your words, I had found a new friend and lost him. Through your eyes and thoughts, I had witnessed the atrocities that occurred in that fateful chapter of history. After that, it was difficult to not stay indifferent! Your book has changed me, Mr. Wiesel, and I thank you for that. And if they could speak, I believe that the millions of forgotten souls would thank you too, for bearing witness and bringing forth the truth of this shameful injustice against mankind.