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Letters About Literature National Winners 2004

National Winner, Level 3: Gregory Tellier

Westminster, MA
September 11, 2003

Dear Valerie Tripp

I didn't actually read your "Kit" books. I just sat and listened while my mother read them aloud to my seven-year-old sister. I should have continued working on my algebra homework or started on my own assigned reading. Instead, I was drawn, body and soul, from my desk to the living room sofa: a twenty-step journey that took me back in time to the Great American Depression. As my mother read Kit Learns a Lesson, I was fascinated and filled with empathy for the children and adults who lived through that time in history. I could have gone back to my homework and read the book to myself at another time. However, my mother's soft voice was captivating as she read, with such passion, this juvenile book for girls.

Yes, the "Kit" books are for young girls. Some would say that literature should not be assigned a reading age or gender. I must admit, however, that as a male high school student, I would never have selected a book from the American Girl Collection. Some would also say that many superior books grace our library shelves, some old, some new, some ancient. I've read more than my share of the great classics. But sometimes a book is good simply because it affects the reader
at a certain moment in his life a particular time when the book's message has its most profound impact on the growth and evolution of a person's consciousness. Just as the fictional Kit Learns a Lesson, it was time for the lesson to come home to me.

I always knew that my grandparents lived through the Depression. My mother often shared her parents' personal childhood stories of poverty and resourcefulness with me stories that were part of her own youth. These family tales took on new meaning and substance for me after experiencing the Kit tales.

Because they lived through the Depression, my grandparents are savers and they have often criticized me for being wasteful. To them frugality is the highest virtue and I have always felt conflicted and "unholy" around them. For example, while my parents encouraged me to stop eating when I was full, my grandparents' disapproval was unabashed whenever I left even a nickel's worth of food on my plate. Though food was always plentiful at my grandparents' table, I couldn't help feel that I was somehow taking food out of their mouths whenever I stayed for dinner. Thanksgiving week was never done with the turkey until soup had been made from the bones and leftover vegetables. Catsup bottles were always inverted to coax the final drops out, and even then the residue was rinsed out, the last diluted juice added to a meatloaf or soup. Despite the economic security my grandparents' regular employment gave them and their children throughout their own adult lives, they could never relax their vigil of thriftiness; they always needed "to save for a rainy day." Having survived the deluge of the Great Depression, my grandparents lived in fear that another flood of hopelessness could be lurking on the horizon. In fact, they still often predict that the "next one is just around the corner." My mother would just laugh and joke that her parents will be disappointed if they don't live to actually see it happen. While my sympathetic mother always managed to find humor and acceptance in her parents' eccentricities with money, I began to stay away from my grandparents to avoid what felt like an overwhelming disapproval in me. I was afraid to tell them that my new bike cost $300 or that my dad just bought me another guitar.

Now I can visualize my grandmother as a little girl like Kit and feel the childhood fear and shame that shaped her for life. I see my grandfather in Kit's brother who had to cancel college plans to go to work. Now I better understand why he has no use for grandchildren who fool around in school and fail their studies. Now I can visit my grandparents without feeling such disapproval, and empathize with their "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" household aphorism. This is living, breathing American history that a history book cannot truly bring to life. Thank you, Valerie Tripp, for making it real for me.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Tellier