Letters About Literature: Dear Kathryn Erskine

We continue our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners for 2016 were announced earlier this month.

There was a tie for the national honor award for Level 1. Following is one of the winning letters written by Charlie Boucher of Rhode Island to Kathryn Erskine, author of “Mockingbird.”

Dear Mrs. Erskine,

A few years ago, I was walking down a bustling Boston street when I noticed a man. His clothes were torn, too small, and he clutched a jar labeled “Please donate.” He muttered gibberish to himself, then shouted at a few young ladies. He seemed confused, yet aggravated simultaneously. I was afraid he might try to hurt someone. My father hurried me along, past the man and down the street. I quickly realized I was walking away from something bigger than a man; I was walking away from what my younger, ignorant self considered to be a disease, a sickness. When we were out of earshot, I asked my dad what was wrong with that man. He brushed the question off, simply saying that I should “avoid people like that.” About a month later, I picked up “Mockingbird.”

I fell in love with that book. No other book has ever made me cry. But I did more than cry. I thought, I visualized, I feared. When I finished your book, I couldn’t stop thinking about that man I had seen. Did he have Aspergers? Rather than avoiding him, should my father and I have helped him? What about the countless other Caitlins in the world? I felt sympathy for them, but I felt something else. Later I realized that was guilt.

I was the girls at Caitlin’s school, bringing her down. Just for avoiding people like that, I had become the bully. I was a hypocrite, ridiculing those who did not help others but not actually helping. The very core of my being, kindness, was in question. But I reread your book, and I felt more a sense of understanding. You weren’t trying to frown upon those who bullied, but rather encourage people to be more open, to promote empathy. I did.

Not even a week after my discovery, I was walking into church when I saw a man who looked and seemed similar than the man I had previously met in Boston. I smiled at him, remembering Caitlin, and gave him a high five. It looked like I had made his day. That man continues to go to my church, and I still greet him the same way I did on that first day. I realized he was kind and helpful. He along with that experience, changed me, and kindness has fully emerged again. I am the person I want to be.

But your book did more than that. It brought to me a confusing topic in an enlightening way: Death. Having someone you love or care about violently ripped away from you. Not knowing where to go, or who to turn to, or anything. That struck me, and it stuck. Life is short, and any day it could end. Just like that. Poof. So make the most of it, and assist the unassisted. Help the helpless. Give a voice to the silent.

All these emotions and thoughts, so strong that I couldn’t keep them in, came pouring out when I read your inspirational novel. And thanks to “Mockingbird” I know now, more than I ever have, about bullying, loss, Aspergers. I have emerged from a cloud of swirling sentiments, a better person, better friend. Your book helps me every day to be the person I want to be, and for that I thank you.

Charlie Boucher

You can read all the winning letters here, including the winning letters from previous years.

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