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The Advocate

Students write to their favorite authors

By Gabrielle Birkner
Special Correspondent

March 8, 2003

DARIEN -- T.J. Thompson, a sixth-grader at Middlesex Middle School, never thought that he'd be on a first-name basis with his favorite author, Jennings Michael Burch.

But a heartfelt letter from T.J. inspired the ailing 62-year-old author of "They Cage the Animals at Night" to strike up an e-mail and telephone correspondence with his 13-year-old fan.

"He said my letter was so great that he read it to his wife," T.J. said. "The last time we got off the phone, he said, 'I love you.' (Burch) brightened up my life, and now I'm trying to return the favor."

T.J. is one of about 92 students in Cici Coutant's sixth-grade writing classes who in January drafted and sent letters to their favorite writers. As a result, more than 20 students have received personalized letters from popular children's authors such as Karen Hesse, Cynthia DeFelice and Louis Sachar.

"Hearing from published authors has been validating for the young writers," said Coutant, a first-year teacher.

Less than two months after T.J. wrote his first letter to Burch, the youngster said he is already feeling more confident about his writing skills.

"People used to make fun of my writing because I couldn't get the wording right," said T.J., who moved with his family to Darien from Northern Ireland five years ago. "He told me to not to worry what anyone else thinks."

Coutant taught her students how to write business correspondences, but encouraged them not to write form letters.

"I wanted them to tell the authors about the types of issues they struggle with as young writers, and get their feedback," she said.

The unorthodox letters begot some candid responses.

In a letter to 12-year-old Hadley Green, author Dyan Sheldon confessed that she loves hearing from her readers.

"It's lonely in my little room in the attic," she wrote to Hadley, "and as you probably know, writing isn't like being a pop singer, nobody applauds you when you're done, so you can never be sure how you've done."

In his letter to Robert Lipsyte, 11-year-old Charlie Orr sought advice on how he could better develop characters when he writes fiction.

Lipsyte -- the author of Charlie's favorite book, "The Contender" -- provided some practical advice.

"You might start by making a few changes in people you know and put them in exciting situations," Lipsyte wrote.

Charlie said he's already implemented the author's advice into his work.

"In a story I'm writing called 'Survival of the Fittest,' I took my 13-year-old brother Andrew, and changed his name and how he wears his clothes," Charlie said.

Eleven-year-old Heidi Lohr, who enjoys writing free-verse poetry, wrote to Poet Laureate Billy Collins about his coming-of-age poem "On Turning Ten."

"I could relate to the poem, because as you get older you have so many more responsibilities," Heidi said. "You hardly have time to imagine or play or do the things you enjoyed as a child."

A response came about a month later.

"I understand your disappointment with the state of the world," Collins wrote to Heidi, "but there will be plenty of time to deal with those things later in life. There are so many things in life that are calling your attention. Believe me, you are going to feel better before you are 12."

Some students who wrote to mega-star authors such as J.K. Rowling or Lemony Snicket received form letters or no letters at all.

"I told them that it was important to put their letters out there, whether or not they receive a response," Coutant said. "They're kind of anxious about hearing back. When other kids are running into school with the letters they received, it becomes an issue."

But then there are stories like T.J.'s.

"It has been a real catalyst for him to continue writing and to gain the confidence he needs to keep going," Coutant said.