Over the weekend I gave an address at the Cleveland Public Library for the winners and finalists of the Letters About Literature competition, which is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.
I was both a judge and a presenter for the state of Ohio, and the letters I read were impressive, indeed. Children and teens wrote of personal struggles, daily sacrifices, life-altering tragedies, and how a book had helped them cope. Reading them was at times difficult, and judging them even more so.
This weekend I met these children and young adults face to face, many of them drawing upon deep wells of bravery in order to stand on a stage, and read those letters aloud. One of the youngest letter writers was so small, she stood on her tiptoes during her entire reading in order to reach the mic.
Another cried openly. Some struggled with the pressure of speaking publicly. Some chose not to read – a decision I respect. The letters were deeply personal, relating stories that took great courage to even put to paper, let alone voice in a crowded theatre.
These young men and women spoke passionately about something I too have great feeling for – books.
So many of the elements of the experience were personally moving for me. I heard fellow readers sharing their love of books. I learned – again – how as an author the impact my words can have. I heard new voices, some of whom will certainly become a new generation of writers.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by our adult lives, easy to wonder if anything we do or say actually matters. This weekend reminded me that our words have power – and that younger ears are listening.