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I spent the day at the State Museum in Baton Rouge judging the Letters about Literature contest. A dozen teachers gathered around a conference room table to talk about writing and to read student entries. This is always a treat. Students from various corners of our state wrote letters to their favorite authors. These letters should not be like a book report. The author, of course, knows what the book is about. What the LAL contest is about is synthesizing, not summarizing.

We set the criteria by looking at the Library of Congress rubric, our own LA Writes Voices, and reading again last year’s winning letters. Tough judging. But as I started reading, in my mind I was looking for the connection, the lasting impression of a reader understanding a writer. Inevitably, the letters that rise to the top make a very personal connection and express that connection in a unique voice. This is a difficult skill to teach. All we can do as teachers is model, model, model, and open the door.

Our top choice for the high school level wrote to Jane Austen. This writer even wrote like Jane Austen. She devoured her books after she first read Pride and Prejudice. But the thing that stood out was the opening line, “Jane Austen, I have a dangerous confession to make. I never liked to read until…”

Again and again, the letters confess something similar. The student learned to love reading by reading this author’s book. The top winner in the middle school level wrote about how she read prize winning books and made the A on all her book reports, but never became a part of a book until she read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. In her own unique way, she gradually expressed her connection to the character.

We were all drawn to the 4th grader who read Old Yeller, and related about losing her friends when she moved after Hurricane Katrina. She wrote, “Most books take you to a new place, but your book brought me home.”

We all have books that draw us in, speak to us, and become a part of our lives. What is that book for you? Have you written to the author?

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