The assignment is simple: Choose a book that has touched your life in a significant way — a book that might even have changed your life — and write a letter to its author, who may be living or dead. This isn't a book report. Think of your letter as an informal conversation with the author, a letter in your own voice and a testament to the power of literature to enlighten and transform, whether it be a work of fiction or nonfiction, a short story or a poem, an essay or a speech. (But no song lyrics, please.)
A year ago, Paul Hoover, age 16 and a student at Germantown High School, did just that. He wrote to Thornton Wilder about Wilder's play Our Town and came in third place. Megan Lee, age 14 and a student at White Station High School, wrote to Sherman Alexie about Alexie's novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and came in second place. And Malli Swamy, age 16 and a student at White Station, wrote to Paulo Coelho about Coelho's novel The Alchemist. She came in first place.
All three Memphis teenagers took top state honors in their age bracket in the Letters About Literature 2010 competition, a program for grades 4 through 12 set up by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress (in partnership with Target) and co-sponsored on the state level by Humanities Tennessee, home of the Tennessee Center for the Book.
Swamy went on to win at the national level, just as Caroline Hoskins of St. Mary's did in 2009 and as Ayesha Usmani of White Station did in 2008. Those honors not only came with the recognition, they included "reading grants" as high as $10,000 to a designated community or school library (plus cash prizes for individual winners and Target gift cards). First-place winner at the highest age level in the state competition also receives a full scholarship to the Tennessee Young Writers' Workshop held each summer on the campus of Austin Peay University in Clarksville.
Lacey Cook, program officer for Letters About Literature at Humanities Tennessee, has been highly impressed with the winning record of Memphis-area students, and she urges everyone to participate: whether student submissions come from in-class work or for outside extra-credit; whether students are in private or public schools or home-schooled.
"It's very rare for one state to have as many national winners as Tennessee — and Memphis in particular," Cook said recently by phone from Nashville. "Individual teachers can help by fitting the contest into the curriculum," Cook added and mentioned English teacher at White Station, Suzanne Wexler, as a fine example. "Librarians can be of help too. Parents. But it's the kids, really. They get to write about whatever they want to."
Being from Tennessee, Cook admitted, does have its advantages.
"Tennessee is a self-managing state, and we're the only state that is," Cook said. "That means, we receive and read all the student letters in-house. Other states have the letters sent to a central office that then sends them to the state judges. We at Humanities Tennessee get to look at each one of them and read them for merit and heartfelt strengths."
If you're entering the Letters About Literature contest, remember: Style and originality count, so too language skills, organization, and grammar. But it's the student-reader's personal relationship with a book that judges will be looking for — and saw in the letter by Malli Swamy, where she concluded her moving message to Paulo Coelho: "... I want to see the world not because of [Jay, Malli's deceased brother], but because of the world itself. Thank you for letting me know that it is waiting for me."
For contest guidelines and requirements, including the coupon necessary for entry, go to humanitiestennessee.org/youngwriters/letters.php. Questions for Lacey Cook? Call her at 615-770-0006 ext. 19 or contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions, by mail only, must be postmarked on or before December 10th.
The assignment is simple: Think of a title (four words maximum). Think of a word, one word. Then send them to memphisfastfiction.com. There they'll be used to compose 365 stories (200 words per story), for a total 73,000 words all about one city: Memphis.
Call it fast fiction, an idea borrowed from Lee Barnett as a writing exercise and an idea that got interactive web designer Zachary Whitten thinking: "What if you could turn a whole year into a series of stories?" he writes on his fast-fiction website. "What if you could write them all about one thing?" And "what if that one thing was Memphis?"
So: Get to thinking about that title and that one word. Whitten needs at least 365 submissions. (No joking around with "intentionally unworkable prompts," please.) And he needs to get working. His first story is to be posted on January 1, 2011; the final story, on December 31, 2011.