Letters About Literature National Winners 2013
National Winner, Level 1: Alessandra Selassie, Washington, DC
Dear Laura Ingalls Wilder,
My life could not be more different than your life and the lives of the pioneers that you describe in your series of books. I live in the American capital, Washington, DC, and enjoy all the things modern life has to offer. I have a Safeway around the corner and don’t have to worry about growing my own food. When I want to go somewhere, I go by car, or if it’s far I go by plane, which gets me there quickly and safely. When I want water, I turn on the tap. When it’s dark, I turn on the light. While my life is so different than yours, I was still so touched by your books because they helped me to finally understand the life of someone I love: my father.
My dad grew up in Eritrea, which is a country in Africa. It was a new country, and he and his family were part of building the nation, just like your family was part of building America. My dad often jokes that his mom made sure that they weren’t picky eaters by not giving them much to eat. It’s hard for me to imagine not having enough to eat. If we run out of food we go to the store, but your book The Long Winter, really made me understand what it felt like to worry about not having enough. I saw in the way Pa and Ma worried about feeding their children, how hard it must have been for my grandma and grandpa with their six children. My father also talks about meeting his friends at night to study under the light of one of the few street lamps in the town. You studied with the light of an oil lamp, and Pa and Ma worried about having enough money to buy oil for the lamp.
When I read about your dolls made out of scraps of fabric it made me think about my dad’s stories of making a ball out of a sock filled with old clothing and scraps of fabric. We feel sad today to hear of kids having so little, but when you describe your childhood and to hear my dad’s Stories, I realize what good childhoods you both had. You both didn’t have many toys, but you made up games and created your own fun.
Even though my dad grew up in a different place and time than pioneer America, when I was reading your books I realized how similar your lives were in terms of the way people interacted. Children had to respect their elders. They didn’t talk back like characters on TV do today. Children were expected to do a lot of chores and help take care of the family house. I have a couple chores to do, but nothing like what my father had to do. He was the eldest, so he had to take care of his younger siblings. His mom didn’t hire a babysitter like you would today. The way he played with siblings and friends wasn’t over Wii, or playing computer games, or talking through intragram or facebook, or anything with technology. They got together, face-to-face, and played with each other, ran around outside, explored nature, or told each other stories and jokes. I can see how this would make a stronger relationship than wanting to kill each other on a Wii game! As much as I love technology, it sounds like fun going back to these kinds of friendships. Today, we think people are important because they have money or are famous. In Eritrea and in pioneer times, it didn’t matter how much you had. It wasn’t cool to be rude or to have a snappy comeback. You didn’t lie, because your word was very important. What mattered was being honorable.
In my dad’s family, just like in your family, two things were really important; being self-reliant and getting an education. Knowing that you could grow your own food and support your family was important. People didn’t have much, but they didn’t want hand-outs. They wanted to work and work hard, just like your Pa always did. I thought of my father when I read how ma helped prepare you, Mary and Carrie for school and how excited Ma and Pa were when you moved to a place that had a school. When my dad was five years old his grandfather took him to register at school. His family had made sure he learned the alphabet before he went so that the school had to accept him even though he was younger than the normal age for starting school. I loved reading about how you all worked hard to make enough money to send Mary to the special school for the blind that was far away. My dad’s parents worked hard to get him into a good high school that was also far away. This led to him finishing high school in America and then college and graduate school. Today, lots of kids complain about going to school, but you, Mary and my dad always felt lucky to go.
Before reading your books, my dad would tell me stories about his childhood but I didn’t really understand them. My life growing up in America is so different than his life was growing up in America is so different than his life was growing up in Eritrea. Also, he lived in the United States so long that his life today is like almost any other American. Reading your books and having such a vivid image through a young girl’s perspective, made me appreciate my dad’s childhood and feel closer to him. It also showed me reasons behind many of his rules and his always emphasizing being honorable. This gave me a new way of looking at him and a new type of relationship with him. I know you wrote these books to help children understand the lives of American pioneers, but for me, it helped me see my father’s African childhood as being less foreign. Thank you so much for writing this series.