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Students advance in contest of self-reflection

Nearly everybody has at least one book in their lives that has changed or deeply affected them in one way or another.

For 13 Detroit Lakes eighth graders, those changes were not only articulated in letters they wrote to the authors of those books, but now they're being recognized on the state level.

Letters About Literature is a national competition that Detroit Lakes eighth-graders have been competing in for three years now.

"It's a contest where they write letters to an author of a book that's had an impact in their lives," said Middle School Language Arts Teacher Pam Daly, who says out of 1,400 entries throughout Minnesota, 78 of them moved onto the state round with 13 of those being from Detroit Lakes.

"The letters are all so different -- some of them are very serious and some of them aren't," said Daly.

Eighth-grader Megan Lysford wrote to Suzanne Collins, who authored The Hunger Games.

"I wrote about how I was teased a lot when I was younger by my good friends, and after I read that book I realized that I should have stood up for myself," said Megan, "because in later years when I got teased I did stand up to them and it stopped."

Korey Hanson, an eighth-grader who loves to hunt, connected with the story Where the Red Fern Grows, a story about a boy and his two coon hounds.

In writing to author Wilson Rawls, he compared a situation in the book where the character loses his grandfather in the woods, but refused to leave without him.

"And that's kind of like me because when I'm hunting with someone, I won't come in until they come in too," Korey said. Language Arts Teacher Julie Bartley was the one who got the Detroit Lakes students involved in the competition three years ago and says judges don't look for grammatical perfection, but pure self-reflection.

"Doing that at the eighth grade level is really powerful because they're at that awkward stage where they're not high schoolers, but they're older for the middle school so they had to do a lot of reflecting on who they used to be and where they are now," said Bartley, "so it was cool to see how honest they were."

It was honesty that likely got eighth-grader Breanna Hamm-Coyne recognized in the competition, as she wrote to Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym for the Nancy Drew authors.

Breanna says when she was younger she turned into a bully because she herself was being teased.

"It taught me that being different and changing is a good thing, and you don't have to be like everybody else," said Breanna, "you can be who you are and still find friends in everybody."

Depending on which authors are chosen, the ones living will actually receive the students' letters, while others are simply written for the benefit of the student and the contest.

Such was the case for eighth-grader Grace Schulberg, who wrote to poet Shel Silverstein, deceased author of The Missing Piece.

"My parents recently got divorced, and I always felt like I had something missing," explained Grace, "but I learned that you can still have an amazing life even if you think you're missing something because even if you find that piece, sometimes you find out that it doesn't make you feel complete."

The language arts teachers say the competition shows students that stories and books contain more than just homework assignments.

"I think it's to have students understand that they're not just reading on a superficial level, but they take things from it and it can affect their lives," said Daly.

The 13 Detroit Lakes students chosen include some of the "high flyers," some at "at risk" and some special education students, giving academic recognition to some who aren't always used to getting it.

"When I announced it to my kids some of them were like, 'What? Me?' They were telling every teacher in the school how they were chosen, so that is really cool," said Bartely.

The second round of judging takes place on the state level this week.

From there, one student will be chosen to represent Minnesota on the national level.

"You never know, it could be somebody from our school," said Bartely, "We've got some great kids and they have a lot to be proud of."