When I was a little girl, the cousin closest to my age lived in California. We were about eight years old when we decided to become pen pals, and started writing long, rambling letters to each other. I can still remember her address from all those years ago, and in a box down the basement are a few of the many letters we exchanged. Composing those letters became one of the first outlets for me to begin branching out on my own to create some form of writing that was neither for a school class or one more episode in the long, serial book I composed about a girl going West on the Oregon Trail. (That’s another story for another day.) For many people, writing letters is a great way to find a voice.
What does this really have to do with children’s literature? Well, just as writing letters became a way for me to express thoughts to my cousin Susan, many authors have used letters or the epistolary form to tell a story through the words of a child. Think of Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw — a Newbery winner that takes us into the life of a young boy struggling to make sense of his parents’ separation and the ways his life is changing. Another favorite of mine is L. M. Montgomery’s fourth book in the Anne of Green Gables series: Anne of Windy Poplars. In this book, Anne writes long letters to Gilbert Blythe telling him all about her experiences in the community of Summerside.
But letter writing is becoming a lost art — at least the type of letter writing that involves stamps and the mailbox and the post office. It is a shame, because there is really nothing else like the thrill of looking into the mailbox and finding a tantalizingly thick, handwritten letter from a friend. Instead of receiving three or four of those “real letters” every week, I count a month lucky when even one friendly, personal letter arrives in the mail.
Yes, there are substitutes: emails can be warm and personal and convey love and friendship; blog posts can be read by many people at once and can be much like a shared journal; the Christmas letters we send and receive every year appear in some very creative forms and help people stay in touch. But these substitutes aren’t the same.
I teach a children’s writing class at my library every two weeks, and early on I arranged for pen pals for the class participants. Now one of the most popular activities is for the children to read and update the others on their correspondence. It is a wonderful way for the kids to express themselves creatively and straightforwardly, with other interested children in other parts of the country and the world. It is one way for children have positive writing experiences. What other ways you can think of that will stimulate children to write? One of the best ways to become a writer, in my opinion, is to start young and write often. We want LDS literature to thrive and grow, and I think one way this can happen is to encourage young people to practice writing in as many different ways as they can. Maybe it isn’t common or necessarily appropriate for a ten-year-old child to have his or her own blog, but maybe that same avid writer can drop a letter to a cousin or grandparent and help to resurrect the art of letter writing. What do you think?