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Letters About Literature National Winners 2019

National Winner, Level 1: Xander Sanchez

Dear Mr. Theodore Gray,

You may remember me from our brief email correspondence in the summer of 2017 where you answered my question on tungsten and rust. Most people think big. Your book “The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe” taught me how to think small. It may have taken three copies, but now I finally understand that things are not always what they seem. My first two copies were destroyed because I read so many times that the binding broke. Even my current copy is held together with half a roll of clear duct tape. In a realm of constant creation and destruction, where pencil lead is not lead, and a wire is not just a wire, atoms are more than they seem. This is a world where atoms rule!

After reading your book I noticed a change in how I understood things. I started tackling big problems, tiny piece by tiny piece. Little did I know I was starting to think of something much bigger than myself or in this case much smaller. I was starting to explore the marvelous realm of the atom where dust specks look like mountains and smells are as big as boulders. Sometimes I like to go outside and look at a tree. When I do this, I think about all of the countless compounds and atoms that are inside.

In a world where light and thoughts are not abstract, but physical and tangible, I see things in a different manner. Now instead of seeing a wire, I see copper covered in hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur. In the place of air, I see hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. As I drink a refreshing glass of cold water, I understand that it is filled with hydrogen and oxygen, the same materials that make up air only in different ratios. When I see a leaf on a beautiful taro plant, I see complex compounds made of dozens of elements creating energy. When I pick up a pencil to do math homework, I know that instead of lead there is graphite, which is used to draw lines and bring my ideas to life. When I swim in the ocean, I know that sodium chloride makes the aquamarine water non-potable. But when I eat a meal, I know that it is the same compound that enhances its excellent flavor. If I see a rusty nail in a soccer field during practice, I know that the rust is just iron fused with oxygen. Although the oxygen in the air gives us life when it meets iron it can be a menace. These views showed me how to understand the world.

I make better choices when I tackled problems one minuscule piece at a time. Instead of answering straight away, I slow down and give a proper answer. I started to understand things on a broader level. Before reading your book, I saw water as merely water, and air as just air. After reading your book on the elements, I broke free of this prison of simplicity. For now, I see everything as it truly is. I learned that to be truly unrestricted, I didn't have to think big.

Just like one cog is only one part of a clock and one atom is a small part of a molecule, I am only a small part of the universe. I understand now that my goal in this world is to help the next generation understand that not everything is what it seems. All we need to do is think small!

Yours Respectfully,

Xander P. Sanchez