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Letters About Literature: Dear Maya Angelou

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The following cross-post was written by Erin Allen and originally appeared on the Library of Congress blog.

Last month, the Library announced the 2016 winners of the Letters About Literature contest, 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.

Research shows that students benefit most from literacy instruction when they are engaged in reading and writing activities that are relevant to their daily experiences. Nearly 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative, which aims to instill a lifelong love of reading in the nation’s youth and to engage and nurture their passion for literature. Nine students were given national recognition and come from all parts of the country.

We’ve already featured the winners in the Level 1 (grades 4-6) category. Today we highlight the National Prize winner from Level 2 (grades 7-8). Raya Kenney of Washington, D.C. wrote to Maya Angelou, author of “Old Folks Laugh.”

Dear Maya Angelou,

“Old Folks Laugh.” How true it is! I love to watch their cloudy eyes crinkle at the edges and lift, just a little. I like to see the spirit come again to their face. I like to watch their drooping cheek lift toward the skies. “When old folks laugh, they free the world,” you wrote in your poem, “Old Folks Laugh,” and I couldn’t lift my eyes from the page. Someone like you, who can take something that seems so small, but make it as big in words as it feels in my heart, becomes an inspiration to me.

Every Thursday I volunteer at a senior’s home. For nearly two years I have worked on the third floor with the people who have worsening cases of Dementia and Alzheimers. It’s hard to watch sometimes as their memory seems to flow away like water. Oh, but how much l love to see them laugh! It’s as if they drank a tall glass of their memories and everything came back. Some days it’s fine and they remember nearly everything, but other days it’s, “Do I know you?”

Your poem seems so selfless. You describe the elders perfectly, with the right touch of play. You sound as though you have watched carefully as their smile becomes a giggle then a full-fledged laugh. You have really helped me notice details. Last week, at the home, I noticed how the seniors’ pants are often a little too big and a little too baggy. I have noticed their yellowing teeth, their scratchy polyester sweaters, and their crooked feet as they struggle with their walkers. I have noticed the faded interior of their rooms and the pictures that memorialize their past scotch-taped to their walls.

Through the richness of your descriptions I have noticed things such as how each elder has their own laugh. Jane, in her wheelchair, tends to lightly titter, while Rosemary, who likes to sew, tends to daintily snort. Robert likes the deep belly laugh where sometimes he can’t catch his breath and I have to pat him on the back. You have made me realize just how much soul they have. I like to watch as the old folks laugh mostly because it makes me happy watching each person be reminded of the incredible parts of their life. I like to think that I share with you the tendency to appreciate the small things. But then again, it isn’t really a small thing when the elderly laugh. To you and I, it is like a bar of gold.

The old folks “generously forgive life for happening to them,” you wrote. Though your poem describes old people laughing, I think the content is covering a deeper meaning. It made me realize the stories behind their smiles and the meaning behind their laughs. Robert might like to laugh as much as he does because he once was in the army during the Great War. Through the desperation, death, and horror he and his friends needed a way to find happiness among the bleak days. Jane grew up in a proper society where laughing too hard was considered improper for a young lady so she titters rather than actually laughing. Some days, it’s like my elderly friends and I are riding the top of a wave on an oncoming laugh. Those are the best days.

Since reading your poem, however, I have also noticed the ones who don’t laugh. I have been quite shocked by that fact. I’ll say something funny and maybe one or two will smile and one might giggle a little, but several others won’t even turn up their lip. I try to convince myself that they still feel well enough to laugh and they simply don’t find me that funny. But I know in my heart of hearts that they have forgotten how to laugh. I try to figure out ways to teach them again, for it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Because of this, in many ways, reading your poem has inspired me to be a better caretaker of the old and helped me see strength in their fragility. Knowing how delicate they are and how much life they have already lived, how many laughs they have already laughed and how many stories they have lived to tell makes me feel more appreciation for them.

Your poem, though it describes how elders laugh, not only has opened my eyes to their thoughts and feelings, but it has also caused me to think about how they have lived and how their stories have affected them. I’m around these incredible people a lot and I’m very grateful to spend the time with them because I know they have a lot of wisdom to teach me despite their failing memories.

Thank you for writing “Old Folks Laugh.” You have helped me notice and appreciate the stories and the small things, both with the elders and with the simplicities of everyday life. Your poem relates to me so much that it makes me smile to know I’m not the only one who finds pleasure in old folks.

Raya Kenney

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

Comments (2)

  1. I wrote a poem titled “You and I” many years ago. I entered it into a contest and was told that I didn’t win, but was asked if they Doubleday could publish it I said yes, this was between the year 1992 and 2000. I would like to know if it was really published and how I can get a copy of it

    • I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


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