Letters About Literature: Finding Ourselves in Books

40th Anniversary  •  Books & Literature  •  Culture & Identity

cover, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
cover, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

By Jane Kulow

When we enter the world of a book, we may wonder if we will we learn something new about ourselves. Will our world view change by reading a book or poem? Do we recognize ourselves in the story? What happens when we don’t recognize ourselves in the books we read?

The Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and an affiliate of the Library of Congress, considers those questions with a unique classroom program called Letters About Literature.

Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing competition, asks middle through high school students to write any author, living or dead, about how the author’s book or poem affected them.

The Virginia Center for the Book works with teachers, librarians, and parents across Virginia to encourage students to participate. Winning letters in three grade levels are submitted to the national competition, and Virginia winners are invited to read at the Opening Ceremony of the Virginia Festival of the Book each March.

cover, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
cover, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

In the autumn of 2012, eighth-grader Christine Wang, of Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, wrote a letter to Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel American Born Chinese. Wang’s letter to Yang was selected as the top Virginia entry for the seventh- and eighth-grade level.

“I am Chinese and I was born in America, but China was all I knew since the age of four …” Wang’s letter begins.

When I was ten, my family moved back to the States. The skies were blue here. And there were trees everywhere, but my life would change drastically. After those few moments of excitement, I was jolted back to reality. I was the out-of-place Chinese. People like me used to be everywhere, now I am the “special” one. I was the Monkey King trying to fit in with humans and Jin Wang trying to blend in with his American classmates … Everyone else looks so much “cooler” than me, and has much more friends … Everywhere around me, the media and my friends’ mostly negative portrayal of Asians shrunk my confidence. Because of my surrounding and low self-esteem, I tried forgetting my identity, just like my fellow travelers—[the characters] Jin Wang, Danny and the Monkey King. I stopped writing out my last name, replacing it with my initials. I stopped speaking Chinese at home, even ignoring certain traditional foods. Being me, being just a “monkey” wasn’t enough anymore. I tried everything I can, and, in a way, I succeeded …

Your book was my handbook in my journey. It pushed enough to leave my comfort or discomfort zone. It took me through the entire trip, giving me hints and helping hands. It showed me the end, where I wanted to go. I once was a girl who ran away from who she was, tripping over her feet while attempting the impossible. But I had depended too much on what others thought, not who I want to be. Thank you so much for showing me I can be whatever I want, even if I am Chinese born in America. But I learned now. The Monkey King said, “I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.” I would have saved myself nearly three years of bondage under my imagined chains had I only realized how good it is to be an American Born Chinese. Thank you for rescuing me before it is too late.

Chritina Wang
Christine Wang, reading her letter to Gene Luen Yang at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book Opening Ceremony

Wang read her letter at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2013. And at the 2014 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., she even met Yang.

Speaking at the pre–National Book Festival gala in August 2014, Yang discussed a number of graphic novelists who have helped readers from diverse communities see themselves in books. Yang shared his experience of discovering in a comic book an Asian American named Xombi, “a scientist who became a superhero after he was injected with nanotechnology”:

Xombi was inventive and fun, but he stood out to me because he was an Asian American male carrying in his own monthly title. And even more notable—he didn’t know kung fu. Xombi wasn’t created by Asian Americans—his writer was white and his artist black— but he did make Asian Americans a little less invisible.

We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree. (Source: Washington Post Sept. 1, 2014)

We who are believers in reading sometimes forget how important “seeing ourselves” can be for young people, and especially for kids such as Christine Wang. But the annual challenge to Virginia’s classroom students brings it so readily to mind each spring.

About the Author

Jane Kulow is the Program Director of the Virginia Festival of the Book. The next Letters About Literature reading is scheduled during the Opening Ceremony, Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at Noon at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, Virginia.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.