Letters About Literature: Dear Wendelin Van Draanen

Letters About Literature, 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, announced its 2015 winners today.

More than 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative funded by a grant from the Library’s James Madison Council with additional support from the Library’s Center for the Book. Since 1997, more than a million students have participated.

The top letters in each competition level for each state were chosen. Then, national and national honor winners were chosen from each of the three competition levels: Level 1 (grades 4-6), Level 2 (grades 7-8) and Level 3 (grades 9-12). For the next few weeks, we’ll post some of the winning letters. This year’s winners are from all parts of the country and wrote to authors as diverse as Sandra Pinkney, Walter Isaacson, Elie Wiesel and Art Spiegelman.

The following is the Level 1 national prize-winning letter written by Gerel Sanzhikov of New Jersey to Wendelin Van Draanen, author of “The Running Dream.”

Dear Wendelin Van Draanen,

I have never lost a leg. I was not born with cerebral palsy. I do not use a wheelchair. I do not have speech problems. But I have lost the one thing I loved the most. My family is made up of my dad, my two grandmothers, my sister, and me. Where is my mom? Look above you. She has landed among the stars.

My mom fought for two years in the battle of cancer. We lost her in September of 2012. I remember when my mom was first diagnosed; she started losing her hair a couple strands at a time. Next thing you know, she was almost bald. Jessica and my mom both lost something important. Out of nowhere, Jessica lost her leg in a car accident. My mom lost most of her hair. They both lost some of their pride. Life is funny, you know? Like at first, your life is going perfect and you have everything you could wish for, and just like that . . . it’s gone. Everything is ripped apart. Simply just . . . gone.

I was heartbroken. My mom looked miserable. I could not stand seeing her suffer like that. She needed countless doses of medicine and weekly chemo therapies. She went through the same cycle for two years. But on a beautiful sunny afternoon, she grew wings. She was an angel in heaven and she was flying in the sky. I was downcast but also happy she was free from suffering. Before I read your book, I never thought I could be joyful again.

But then I read it. I have realized that I am not the only one who has this problem. As I was reading “The Running Dream,” I saw how difficult it was for Jessica to adjust to such a dramatic change and I could relate. Jessica needed to use a prosthetic leg and learn how to walk with crutches. I needed to embrace the fact that my mom was in a better place. Reading your book gave me a different perspective on things. I thought I would never be happy again, but when I read how Jessica got her running leg and practiced running little by little, I realized that I could jump back on track too. When her teacher showed her the YouTube video of the running amputee, she thought, “Maybe I can run again.” And so did I.

I could not put your book down as I was reading. One of the reasons I fell in love with it is because it is so inspiring. You would never think that a girl like Jessica – popular, pretty, and perfect – would become friends with a girl like Rosa – who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. I love how your novel showed that anything is possible if you believe and try. Jessica and Rosa developed a bond that will never break.

Your book moved me in a way that no book has ever done before – it gave me hope. By reading “The Running Dream,” I have learned many things. I have always wondered why I was never happy, besides the fact that my mom had passed. But then it hit me. If I spent the rest of my life focusing on all the negative elements, I would never be able to enjoy all the little things that make up a good life.

Your book also taught me that when life knocks you down, you just need to pick yourself up and keep on moving. When Jessica lost her leg, it did not stop her from pursuing her dream. And I am not going to spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself. I will live life to the fullest and live like there is no tomorrow.

During the two years that my mom has not been here, I have realized that only one thing has kept my life together, and that is hope. So thank you. Thank you for giving me that. I know that the life I live is not perfection, but it is enough for now. One of the most important things I have learned is that life is a big stinking blob of mess, but that’s the glory of it too.

Gerel Sanzhikov

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

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