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Letters About Literature National Winners 2018

National Winner, Level 2: Rylee Paige Johnson

Dear Gabrielle Zevin,

I read your book for an assignment in school. My teacher meant for us to learn a lesson, write a paragraph, and move on. But my mind is still in Elsewhere. When Liz wakes up and finds herself on a boat, she is told by a strange man she was hit by a car and died. He said they were taking her to a place called Elsewhere. Once they arrived, she would begin to age backwards until all her memories were lost. As a baby, Liz would be sent back to Earth to live a new life, a life that wasn’t hers. He said her life was taken by a yellow taxi and she could never go back. Liz couldn’t believe her life was over. Looking back on her life she realized how precious it had been and how much time she’d wasted.

I could relate to Liz because I knew what it was like to complain and cry about things that would not matter in the next hour. Being a kid makes you want, what you want, when you want it. But that view clouded all the wonderful things I needed to be grateful for. Yet, the lesson people learn time and time again tends to be realized too late.

One night my siblings and parents were in the living room watching our favorite show. A commercial came on so I got up to make cookies in the kitchen. Then my oldest sister, Sydney, started whispering, “Mom? Mom?” No answer. I looked over to see my dad standing over a shaking body. “I’m calling 911!” She had had an aneurysm and wasn’t waking up. I spent those few days in that hospital room listing all the things I did wrong and what I would change once she woke up. She never did.

My mom was very outgoing and succeeded in making friends with pretty much everyone she met. The hospital filled with people I knew, people I pretended to know, and extended family. Being only 11, everyone smothered me with questions and somber nods. Whenever somebody asked me how I was feeling I smiled and said, “If this was her time, then it is her time.” It wasn’t until she was in a casket that I realized it really was her time. I was kind of playing the part of strong and accepting without expecting her to really die. There was no way I was supposed to really grow up without a mom. No way.

I spoke at her funeral and put on a smile. I told all the concerned family friends, “If it was her time, then let it be.” I fooled myself into pretending things were just fine. Unlike Liz, my first response was to be okay. Everyone deals with death and everyone gets through it, I can too, right? Before I knew it, junior high was about to begin. Even though I didn’t say it, seventh grade seemed pretty scary. I was excited for more teachers and a locker, but now I had to get through it on my own. But when I read your book, life got brighter.

Liz tortured herself by going to the observation decks to see her old life everyday. She sat there watching her best friend being happy without her. She watched everyone move on. Everyone except Liz. I didn’t want that happen to me. I didn’t want to become a ghost person living in the past. For my birthday a few weeks later, I got a little book of positive quotes. It inspired me to write one thing I was thankful for everyday. Not the typical things like family and friends, but things like clean water and good teachers. My dad tried putting me in different support groups that I saw no need for. After deciding I wasn’t totally fine though, we went to one on one therapy sessions that helped me a lot, but only because I was willing to work for it.

One thing that really stuck with me was your theme of acceptance. Liz took some time learning how to move on from the life she used to know. She became obsessed with the observation decks where she could observe her friends and family back on Earth. She was stuck. Thandi, her roommate, had no problem at all. From the start she said there was no point being sad at what she couldn’t change. I read that, wishing my heart could catch up like Thandi’s did in two pages. But everyone takes their own time to keep their mind and soul in sync. Knowing that my mom wasn’t coming back home was difficult to even imagine. I had to accept that life would go on without her, but only if I moved on.

You wrote “Death is a state of mind—many people on Earth spend their entire lives dead.” I wanted to live my life and not wait for it to be over. December 16th will mark one year since my mom’s death. Just like Liz aged backward in your book, my mom would be one year younger and one year closer to home. Thank you for a world where my own mother can see me writing this letter from an observation deck. Thank you for the idea that once I leave this world, I will return. Thank you for the lessons I couldn’t live without, and the book I won’t forget.

With heart,

Rylee Paige Johnson