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Letters About Literature National Winners 2003

National Winner, Level 2: Frances Choi

Dear Norton Juster,

I noticed one day that I always seemed to be waiting for something; 3:00, the weekend, the summer holidays. I willed the days to go by faster, worked as quickly through my schoolwork as I could to get it over with. I took as many shortcuts as I could get my hands on. School was an enormous bore, and many a time I wondered the point of it all what use will it ever be to me to learn how many protons there are in an atom of carbon? Is it really so important to understand the difference between a direct object and an indirect object? I began to wonder why I went to school at all.

Then I read The Phanton Tollbooth.

In the beginning, Jilo's attitude toward life aggravated me like an itch you can't reach; but as I read on, I began to realize that my own attitude was not all that different. This new spark of thought inspired me to read on. I couldn't help but laugh out loud upon reading Milo's aberrant conversation with the Whether Man, and I so loved the part when the Lethargians described their daily schedule that I had to share it with other people. I tried reading some of the funniest passages out loud to my parents, but they simply nodded and smiled politely before moving on to the next discussion topic. No matter. It certainly didn't discourage me from continuing the book.

Every page was more cleverly written than the last, and I started to carry the novel with me everywhere I went: to the bathroom, to church, to meals. I even stayed up at night, secretly reading under the covers, not to find out the outcome of the plot but to entertain myself with the whimsical ideas, places, and people that Milo met. The Phantom Tollbooth is one of the few books I have ever read where I didn't skip over paragraphs, eager to find out how the story would resolve itself; the journey itself was much more important than the end. I got to thinking that perhaps the book itself was symbolic of life.

I found myself in a position where I was dreading reaching the back cover. The end would mean no more adventures, no more fascinating people to meet, no more clever plays on words. However, all good things come to an end, and The Phantom Tollbooth was no exception. When I had read the very last word of the very last page, Is at still for a moment to bask in the brilliance of it all, and then opened the book again to the beginning to see if perhaps it had magically been transformed into a sequel. When I found that this was not true, I flipped through the book reading my favorite parts again and searching for any paragraphs I had by chance missed.

Overall, you book taught me a lesson, and a valuable one at that; I learned that every moment of the day is precious, and that once time passes, it won't come back. Life is short; we might as well enjoy it while we can. I've been walking through the halls with a new bounce in my step, and when outside, lifting my face to the sunlight and breathing in the great scent of life. With the help of The Phantom Tollbooth, I've realized that every second of the day holds so much opportunity, and great things are just waiting to happen. Thank you.

Yours truly,
Frances Choi

What the Judges Had to Say About Frances's Letter

I love the lead paragraph and the second paragraph. Well-organized, personal, effective style. The impact of the book was not grand, as with some letters. No weeping, no sudden epiphany. Instead, a thoughtful new insight, presented in an entertaining way. (Suzanne Barchers. Managing Editor, Read magazine, Weekly Reader Corporation)

Some children write fan letters. Surely this is one. You can almost hear her enthusiasm in how she writes. And yet, the letter offers much more than press. Frances moves beyond "you're my favorite author" to explain why reading this particular book changed her view of the world and most importantly, herself. She begins with an interesting truth about herself and one which most adolescents, even adults, can relate. We do indeed waste time waiting. But it is in her closing paragraph that Frances nails the landing. She is still waiting. That hasn't changed, but now her waiting is not out of boredom but our of anticipation of great things to come. This gives the essay organization and meaning. But here's the rub while most of us can relate to her first paragraph, sadly not all of are so changed as Frances is in the final paragraph. (Catherine Gourley, National Director, LAL Reading Promotion Program)