Letters tell how books affected young readers; Annual writing competition open to those in grades 4-12


It's a message to a dead author about a book published nearly seven decades ago. But 10th-grader Jessica Nauright's letter to George Orwell brings his 1933 classic, "Down and Out in Paris and London," firmly into 2000.

Her letter also earns the Howard County student a $100 check as one of two first-place winners in this year's "Letters About Literature" contest, a national competition coordinated locally by the Maryland Center for the Book at the Howard County Library.

The annual writing contest is sponsored by Weekly Reader Corp. and King's College. Students in grades four through 12 write a letter to an author detailing how a particular book "changed their way of viewing the world and themselves."

"Writing to the authors just establishes a great bond between the writer and the author," said Pat Bates, coordinator for the Maryland Center for the Book.

This year's contest drew more than 1,200 entries in Maryland and 20,000 nationwide.

Nauright, of Centennial High School in Ellicott City, was the statewide winner in the eighth- to 12-grade level for her letter to Orwell about his nonfiction account of mingling with those in the slums of Paris and London.

Deanna H. Zook, a sixth-grader at Plum Point Middle School in Calvert County, won first place in the younger level for her letter to author Barbara Park about her novel "Mick Harte Was Here," which deals with the death of a sibling.

In her letter, Deanna reflects on the loss of two friends who died in a car crash: "You made me feel that I was not alone in experiencing and suffering the tragic loss of two very special people."

Bates said that such letters can be an important vehicle for self-reflection. "It makes them look at themselves and compare themselves to characters in a story," she said. "In some ways, that can be very helpful."

The winners in this year's contest were:

Grades Four to Seven: First place -- Deanna H. Zook, Plum Point Middle School, Chesapeake Beach; Second place -- Supraja Murali, Harper's Choice Middle School, Columbia; Third place -- Kelly Dern, Garrison Forest School, Owings Mills; Fourth place -- Jae Hee Yoon, Robert Frost Middle School, Rockville.

Grades Eight to 12: First place -- Jessica Nauright, Centennial High School, Ellicott City; Second place -- Shengping Yu, River Hill High School, Clarksville; Third place -- Daniel Rusk, Hammond High School, Columbia; Fourth place -- Chloe Robinson, Carver School of Arts and Technology, Towson.

Excerpts from prize-winning letter

Dear Mr. Orwell,

I have recently read your book 'Down and Out in Paris and London,' which describes your adventures as an unskilled urban slum-dweller during the 1930s. I realize this is not traditionally considered your best, most representative or most important work, but it meant so much to me, and I think the book has great relevance for today's society.

On a personal level I think your book is an amazing protrait of freedom. You, as a middle-class Englishman, were 'supposed' to go to college and 'supposed to revile the working and poverty-stricken classes. That is exactly what you seemed not to want to do...Your choice to 'sink down,' as you put it, is, to say the least, liberating, since I am at the age when I am supposed to be figuring out what I want to do with my own life. ...

You said you went through a process of expiation, and your book also painted a vivid picture of this process. In today's modern world, despite half-hearted attempts at labor reform, bourgeois guilt has not been erased. In fact, I believe consumers today are more alienated than ever from the production process of the goods we hoard. In today's world, so much emphasis is placed on streamlined production and seeming decency, but beneath the surface lies sweatshop labor and migrant workers. You had the courage to try, in a perhaps futile way, to atone for the prejudices of your youth. ...

The world you describe in your book does belong to the past, but your sugestions for reform do not. And unlike many reformers, you knew what you were talking about because you were practically starving during this entire ordeal. ...You wanted to improve life for everyone, but were never sentimental. You saw, before most bourgeois people, the fact that snobbery, poverty, and obscene wealth were social cancers. And that makes you a hero to me. ...

Respectfully Yours,

Jessica Nauright

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