My moment as ‘celebrity judge:’ young readers write to their favorite authors

Students from Meridian, Middleton and Moscow won first prize in the 2013 “Letters about Literature” competition, a national reading and writing effort sponsored by the Library of Congress.

I had the pleasure of helping the Idaho Commission for Libraries, the local sponsor, judge the finalists among 500 entries statewide. Entries in all three categories were impressive. Contestants read a book and wrote a personal letter to an author, explaining how the book changed their views of the world or themselves. Students may select authors, living or deceased, from any genre, fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic.

The Idaho winners will receive $100, a certificate and a new hardbound book. They also are entered in the national competition, which offers a $1,000 prize. The winners:

Victor Smith, a 6th-grader at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Meridian, who wrote to Madeleine L’Engle about her book, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Victor competed with others in grades 4 to 6.

Kenadi Swendsen of Middleton and an 8th-grader at Vision Charter School in Caldwell, wrote to Kathryn Erskine about her book, “Mockingbird.” Swendsen competed in the grades 7 and 8 category.

Hannah Mahoney, a sophomore at Moscow High School, wrote to all authors of literature. Hannah competed with other freshmen and sophomores.

Victor’s letter described his empathy for people with problems and said L’Engle’s classic “solidified that feeling. It was like putting steel on a wall that was much weaker before.”

Kenadi told of choosing “Mockingbird” at a school book fair and how she saw herself in a character who was unkind to others: “I read about Emma, Mia, Anna and Laura, the popular girls at Caitlin’s school, thinking, ‘How could anyone be so mean?’ and I became aware that I was the Emma in Marie’s life. I tried to be nice, but then I would just turn around and ignore her, so she was confused. I answered my own question: ‘I could.’”

Hannah had the guts to ignore the instruction to write to a single author, saying she simply couldn’t pick one book and instead wrote to “Literature.”

“Because life is every color I can see with my eyes and The Color Kittens to gave the world ‘life’ with many buckets and brushes, and life is the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows, while death brings sorrow, out of the sorrow life is sprouted. In the end, love is the little girl who came back and bought Corduroy with her own money, despite his missing button. Books taught me love when all around me there was pain, although no two books are alike, and no two people understand them the same.”

Though the professionals did most of the work, I got quoted in Monday’s news release from the Commission for Libraries: “Victor, Kenadi and Hannah richly convey the transformational power of good writing. But they do more than just tell: Inspired by literature, they write inspired sentences themselves.”

You can read the full essays of the three Idaho winners by clicking here.



Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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