Audrey Wood, a seventh grader at North Branch School in Afton, has been named one of six national winners in the Library of Congress’s Letters about Literature program. Catherine Gourley, director of the program for the LOC’s Center for the Book, came to the school May 11 to present Wood’s award personally.
Letters about Literature is a 19-year-old reading and writing program that asks students in grades 4 through 12 to write letters to the authors of books that had a significant impact on the student’s life. This year the program received 70,000 entries from young readers across America, Gourley said. Wood’s letter to Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie won first place for the state of Virginia as well.
In her letter to Barrie, Wood credits his book with keeping people aware of the magic in their lives. She read her letter aloud to her middle school classmates, her extended family and other guests of the award ceremony.
“Magic isn’t just superpowers or unnatural happenings,” Wood wrote. “It’s happiness, wonder, love and imagination. Every little petal, leaf and pebble is like a little miracle exploding with magic. Children can see the magic better because they don’t have as many responsibilities and hard choices to make. Some people lose touch with the magic in their lives as they get older. Peter Pan reminds people of the magic in their lives.”
Wood described how her family often read the book aloud—it was first a favorite of her older sister—and acted out roles from it. Recognizing magic moments—seeing ants carrying leaves bigger than themselves—gives her her favorite feeling, said Wood. Seeing magic makes you wonder why people fight and hate, she said.
Wood’s honor includes a $10,000 reading promotion grant from Target Stores to be given to a school or library. Wood, who also got $500 from Target for herself, donated the money to North Branch School, where she has been a student since the fourth grade. Other national winners this year were in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Michigan and Massachusetts. Winners come from public, private, and parochial schools and some are homeschooled.
Gourley said a team of 12 at the LOC reads all the submissions and culls the number of them roughly in half. A second round of reading gets the contenders down to about 7,000. Those go back to the states for final selections by new judges. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities administers the program for Virginia. Winners are chosen for three competition levels. The first groups fourth and fifth graders, another considers sixth, seventh and eight graders, and the last judges high school submissions. State winners’ entries go back to the LOC to be judged by a panel of distinguished writers who review the contenders in two rounds of readings that take four weeks.
“This is a writing contest,” said Gourley. “This program goes beyond facts to think critically. The ability to empathize with characters [in literature] is the aim of literacy.”
She said judges look for personal reflection in the letters submitted and a connection to the book. “How do you see yourself framed in the book?” she explained. “And then, how well is the connection expressed? Writing a reflective letter is not easy. It’s very personal. Wood’s letter stood out for me because I loved Peter Pan, too. Barrie is not thought of much anymore. It’s not Harry Potter.”