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Letters About Literature: Dear Fred Gipson

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Last week, we featured the first of two letters that tied for the National Honor Award for Level 1 in the Letters About Literature contest. The initiative is 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 last month.

The second Level 1 National Honor Award-winning letter comes from Ellie Sanders of Washington, D.C., who wrote to Fred Gipson, author of “Old Yeller.”

Dear Mr. Gipson:

I was born into a poor Chinese family. They gave me up in hopes that I would get a better life. I was adopted when I was a little over a year old. My new family included a jumpy golden retriever pup. His name was Maxwell Silver Hammer Sanders, Max for short. He had floppy ears and furry paws. He was my best bud. From playing spies at naptime (oops) to welcoming a new sister, he was there. He moved three times with us, from Austin to Houston and finally to D.C. He loved to swim and hunt squirrels. He was the one I could trust to listen to my secrets. He never yelled, and he always had a special smile for me. I hoped my life, my world, would continue like this. I thought all was well, which it was, almost. I’m sure that Travis from “Old Yeller” felt the same way.

One night, in my new brick house, in a new place, everything changed. My sister and I had already been put to bed. I heard a thump and some scraping. I crept spy-like out of my bed, by my sister’s room, and down the stairs. The scene that my eyes saw, that my brain took in, sent shivers down my spine. My mom and dad were kneeling over Max. He was breathing heavily. I stepped out from the shadows. My heart led a drumline in a parade. Everything in the world stopped in anticipation. Max had gotten sick before, but the way my mom looked at me I knew that this was different. My mom beckoned me over. Her face was grave. She told me that Max was sick. He was too weak to walk. My mom and dad talked, I couldn’t hear a word they said. I felt like I was underwater. Sounds blurred and my eyes became the tiniest bit bleary. My mom and dad stopped talking; they had reached a conclusion. My mom said, “Max is old, I think it’s time to-.” She started to tear up. She didn’t have to finish. My dad went upstairs to wake my sister. I heard my sister Jillian come and sit down beside me. Mom told her what needed to happen. She started to cry. I felt that numb empty feeling that Travis had felt after he lost Old Yeller. Except it was different for me. I felt the empty feeling before losing Max. Max, my lifetime buddy had been sentenced to death for his own good.

One year after Max’s death, my mom recommended the book “Old Yeller.” The place in my heart that Max held was healing bit by bit. It was like my heart was a puzzle, and the final pieces had been lost. I climbed up the carpeted attic stairs and bent down and picked up an old, wrinkled, yellowed covered book. I got comfy in my reading nook and started to read. I faded into a zone. I was not in the attic, I was in the forest with Travis and Old Yeller hunting gobbler. I was saving Little Arliss from the she bear. Then, my own life started to replay in the book. Max and Old Yeller became the same dog. As I read on, I relived my sorrow.

I exited the book and lay there, thinking. I felt different, like the pieces of my heart finally coming together. It seemed as if I had found the lost pieces to my heart. I finally saw Max’s death in different way. I still miss Max, but now it’s different. Instead, now I think of him as not only my best friend, but an angel always watching and guiding me. “Old Yeller” now holds a special place in my heart. My heart is now whole. That is all thanks to you, Fred Gipson. Thank you.

Ellie Sanders

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


  1. It is always refreshing to share with children. We can learn a lot, and allow us to be cautious with their needs and feelings.

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