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Letters About Literature National Winners 2013

National Honor Winner, Level 3: Emily Waller

Dear Laura Ruby,

A curious question can lead to answers that are deeper than anyone might realize. “Would you rather have the power of invisibility or the power to fly?” This question inspired your novel, The Wall and the Wing, but it also inspired me. Instantly I know what my original answer would be. I would want nothing more than to slip through the cracks in the world and slink, undetected, away from prying eyes (or really, any eyes at all.) While it’s true that I am a little afraid of heights, there’s something I used to fear even more: judgment.

In your book, those who don’t have the ability to fly are labeled as leadfoots, social outcasts who are quite literally weighed down to Earth while watching everybody else soar high above them. I was remarkably similar to a leadfoot when, in seventh grade, I was diagnosed with the spinal disease called Kyphosis. While it didn’t pose me any serious medical threat, I was forced to wear a back brace – a big honking piece of outlandish plastic that encased me like a shell. While it was keeping me from being a hunchback, that brace may as well have been a million pounds. I went from trying on outfit after outfit, wearing different dresses and skirts, to only wearing baggy sweat pants and extra large T-shirts because that was the only thing that would conceal my brace. Not only was there the physical discomfort of the brace, but I became horrendously self-conscious, like a turtle who always retreats inside its shell. But the absolute worst thing of all about my brace was being in the presence of other kids at school. I watched all of my friends have great new experiences and create long lasting friendships, becoming popular and even beginning to date. From my own perspective, it felt as if I were standing miles below a cloudless blue sky, watching the people who I longed to be with soar above me. While I still laughed and smiled with them, pretending to be enjoying myself, there was always a nagging part of me, reminding me that we weren’t the same. I was weighed down, coated in a layer of plastic. They were free.

As I continued reading, getting to know Gurl and Bug, I really felt as if they were my friends, because I could relate to their emotions of being useless and isolated. As Gurl developed her invisibility and Bug had his odd adventures, I felt motivated to do something to change myself. Unfortunately, I lacked the skill to  spontaneously develop superpowers, so I did the next best thing and started making friends. While I was too shy to speak to the more popular kids in my class, I approached those who, like me, were more socially outcast. Not only did I make friends, but I started to stop feeling so sorry for myself.

When I finally closed your book, something strange occurred. I realized that while I had been inside the pages, I hadn’t focused on how I looked or what others thought of me with my brace on. I had been so immersed inside, enjoying myself with the characters, it simply hadn’t mattered. That realization led me to another. It wasn’t the other people around me who had made me feel like a leadfoot. I had excluded and isolated myself, feeling worthless, although my friends were perfectly accepting of my brace. I missed out on opportunities and maybe I couldn’t wear the clothes I wanted, but that didn’t have to keep me from having fun and making great new friends. At first I’d been hostile to my old friends and hadn’t accepted any new ones because I was worried that I would fail, when I hadn’t even tried in the first place.

My perspective shifted violently after reading this book, and while it’s true that there were other factors that made me realize that I was the one weighing down myself, reading about the characters’ experiences showed me that if you have a goal, you should always strive for it, no matter how impossible.  Differences are never negative – diversity is what makes the world worth living in. While my situation wasn’t positive, I could still make the best out of my middle school years. Our own experiences shape or lives, whether they are positive or negative, and it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a huge plastic back brace or not as long as you’re having a good time and learning a little about life. What matters is that you live, learn, and love as much of life as you can, and your book helped me to understand that truth. “Would you rather have the power of invisibility or the power to fly?” My answer is still the same as before. I would choose invisibility, but not for the same reasons. I would choose invisibility so I could sneak more chocolate chip cookies without getting caught.

Emily Waller