John Strauss is as well-mannered an seventh-grader as you'll find, with good grades, a large vocabulary and a love of reading.
So when he entered a national contest based on letters written to favorite authors, John wrote to Darren Shan, author of a favorite young-adult book — "Lord Loss," the first book in the Demonata series of gory, graphic fantasy novels.
John said Shan was a natural pick as the author to whom he would address a letter in the contest.
"He's my favorite author so far," John said. "I've read every book he's written — 10 in the Demonata series, 12 in the Cirque du Freak series."
Darren Shan writes young-adult books with gripping action, frightening demons and horrific death. Not your classic, middle school fiction, exactly, but not trashy, according to John.
"(Shan's) audience is teenagers. His books are pretty gruesome. I can connect with the characters a lot. The main characters are teenagers about my age," John said. "There's a lot of action. And they're well-written books. They gave me a lot of vocabulary."
Letters About Literature is a state and national writing contest organized by the Library of Congress. The program is intended to promote reading and writing among students in grades 4 through 12. Students enter by writing a letter to an author expressing how that author and book changed the student or how they looked at the world.
This is John's second time being a state finalist in Letters About Literature. He was also a finalist when he was in fourth grade; he wrote a letter to Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys series.
This year, students across Washington County participated in Letters About Literature. John and four other students advanced to the state finals (see sidebar on page C10) but none were selected as winners.
John's English teacher, Anne Kendall, said she sent in about 25 entries from her students.
"I like the idea of the kids responding to a writer who had some effect on them," she said. "I wanted that aspect — what are you reading and what impact did it have on you?"
Kendall said she coached her students to search for the things that captivated them about the books they chose. She told them to find an author whose material students related to, someone whose stories or poetry helped them work through something.
Kendall's intent is to lead her students to connect with books. Reading, Kendall said, is key.
"I use my dad as an example. He was not a reader. His idea of reading is those illustrated classics," she said. "But he found a John Grisham book and now he's a reader."
And reading doesn't mean only reading "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Wuthering Heights." Any reading is good. Kendall is pleased to see her students picking up books of a variety of genres.
"A lot them do read fantasy," she said. "Things that help them escape their lives."
John said he connects with Grubbs, the protagonist in "Lord Loss" who had tragic losses happen to him. He survived using his wits. John included that in his letter.
"The theme of what we wrote was why we liked that book," John said. "Grubbs is the main character. I remember the way he beat the bad guy was mind over matter. He was sneaky. He used his smarts."
And that's something any well-mannered young reader could relate to.
Other Letters About Literacy finalists from the county
In addition to John Strauss of E. Russell Hicks Middle School, the other four Letters About Literacy state finalists from Washington County were:
Fourth-grader Timothy Seifert of Emma K. Doub Elementary School in Hagerstown. He wrote to Andrew Clements, author of "Frindle."
10th-grader Cassandra Basford of Boonsboro High School, Boonsboro. She wrote to Stephen Chbosky, author of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
11th-grader Taylor Angle of Boonsboro High School, Boonsboro. She wrote to Katherine Paterson, author of "Bridge to Terabithia."
11th-grader Maygen Fowler of Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown. She wrote to Dave Pelzer, author of "A Child Called ‘It.'"