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Letters About Literature National Winners 2018

National Honor Winner, Level 3: Sukanya Barman

Dear Laurie Halse Anderson,

I opened “Catalyst” for the first time when I was in middle school, about four years ago. I made it about halfway through the book before I stopped. At the time, I was confused. “Catalyst” felt disjointed—the book was unstructured, the protagonist was irrational, and the plot was meaningless. I lost interest, turned the book back in to the library, and ended my brief sojourn from my steady stream of fantasy novels.

Recently, I stumbled upon the book again and decided to give it a second chance, mostly out of curiosity. Within the first few pages, I connected with Kate Malone so deeply that it almost physically hurt. High-achieving, ambitious, and mentally hanging on by a thread, it seemed as though the character was formed as a reflection of whom I had become. Now, I realize that this book is indeed a disjointed mess—a mess of anger and hopelessness and uncertainty. I have found that this messiness is one of the reasons that I can relate to this book. These are the same emotions that have become familiar; they now constantly make my stomach churn in a roiling mass of doubt and anxiety.

There was nothing different about the book; all the same words are on the same page in the same order. Instead, over those four years, I had drastically changed.

In middle school, college was a problem for later. I was told that I would go to one of the top-tier colleges and ensure a good future. Anything else was failure, but I wasn’t worried. I was under the misconception that the only things necessary for entrance at one of these schools were good grades and hard work. My life was simple; I had a stable family, I had a close group of friends, and I found school interesting and exciting. That was then, and now everything’s changed. As a junior, college is slapping me in the face. I no longer have the option of sticking my head back into the sand. I can already feel the heat and pressure building, and I am terrified that rather than becoming strong as stone, I will shatter like glass instead.

I understand why Kate spends her nights sleepless and sprinting through the silent streets. I, too, dearly wish that I could run away from myself and all of the emotions tying me to the earth. Her duality, between “Good Kate” and “Bad Kate,” rings true for me as well. From the outside, I seem to be sailing through the day normally, but a thunderstorm is always raging underneath, telling me to give in to my foremost desire and scream until my lungs burst.

“I am scum,” Kate repeats. That one line hit me like a blow to the stomach. Hadn’t similar thoughts chased themselves around and around my brain so many times? So often, everything about me feels inadequate—I take 6 AP classes? So what? Others are taking 8. The rat race never ends, and I thought my greatest fear was falling behind. But Kate and I are not scum. Kate’s identity was wrapped around her hopes for entrance to MIT, and when she was not accepted, she eventually managed to move on and find out who she was beyond it with the help of Teri. Because of her story, my perspective has changed. I have accepted that my identity and my life are far larger than a resume and more than an application.

Kate’s life spiraled out of control; from the MIT rejection to the early death of Mickey, the tornado swept through, leaving behind devastation. She seemed broken, but after considerable struggle and doubt, she began to reconstruct herself—both literally and metaphorically—resulting in a hopeful ending. Personally, I have never experienced anything close to the tragedy she endured, but this story has helped me realize that when or if I do break, I always have the option of picking up the wreckage and rebuilding myself.

I wish I were unable to relate to Kate Malone. I wish her words and experiences and personality were completely alien to me. I wish I could go back to who I was in middle school. But I cannot. I will sometimes be drowned in self-loathing thoughts. I will sometimes feel like a complete and abject failure. But I have to remember that I can learn and grow and change without being shattered by failure.

Catalysts are substances that increase the rate of reactions. They are the spark that brings about change, and one of the catalysts of my life has been this book.

Thank you,

Sukanya Barman