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Letters About Literature National Winners 2019

National Winner, Level 2: Thea Millenson-Wilens

Dear Gayle Forman,

Sometimes I lie in bed at night and imagine what it would be like if I was a punker with turquoise hair, black lipstick, and 50 piercings. Or if I bleached my hair and wore crop tops and mini skirts. Your book made me feel free to imagine being anyone. After all, Mia is a classical musician in a family of hippie rockers, and she was able to find her true self. Before I read your book, I never knew where I fit in, or who I was supposed to be. Because that’s the real question everyone asks; “Who am I?” As I read your book “If I Stay,” I felt like Mia was the older sister I never had. Like she was whispering me advice from the pages of your book.

While I read your book, I felt like I connected with Mia. When she was excited, I was excited for her. When she was silly, I laughed with her. But the first time I read your book, I had trouble truly understanding the struggle that Mia was going through. I had never experienced the type of tragedy where someone was there one instant and gone the next. But now, the second time reading your book, I was empathetic toward Mia. Because I went through a tragedy too. My uncle was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer this year and died 3 weeks later. It tore through my family. No one had expected this. And I felt like no one understood. Like there was no one I could talk to. But then I remembered Mia.

As I read your book again, I watched her remember. Remember the love and the pain, the good and the bad, the silliness and the sorrow. And through her pain, a flower bloomed. Yes, it was a flower borne from tragedy and destruction, but it was also a flower of friendship, and happiness, and family. Because what saves Mia is love. I’ve read many books where love is the saviour. But your book is different. For it is not just love for a person that saves her but love for life. Love for truth and choice and nature and music.

I came back to this book after my Uncle died because I knew Mia would understand. To some, fictional characters are just writing in a book. But in your book, they’re more than that. They are part of someone’s story. My story. You have created something beyond a character. You have created life. And Mia has taught me how to accept the pain, and from it become someone new. Turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly. You showed me that the outside doesn’t matter; it’s the inside that counts. And sometimes to find that inside, you have to walk through the darkness. You have to fall down, and get back up. And so I think of Mia. I think of her playing the cello, lost in her own world, when I play piano. I think of her wearing her punk rock/ Debbie Harry costume, unsure if this was who she wanted to be, as I struggle to navigate the world of middle school. I think of Mia as I sit in my car with my Dad, jamming out to “Chalk Dust Torture” by Phish. (Although, I disagree with your statement in another book you wrote, “I Was Here.” Phish is definitely not a “Lame hippie band!”) And so I understand that in life, everyone has a choice. Who they decide to be. Where they decide to go. How they decide to deal with pain. And sometimes when they let go.

You understood the pain and sorrow, and you knew that what we needed was not advice but hope. And so Mia is always there, playing her cello. Camping with Adam, so alone in the mountains they thought they were the only ones left. And so now I do not strive to be anyone but me. I sit in the stillness that surrounds death, and I fill myself with acceptance. With peace. And with love. Because you have taught me that acceptance does not mean letting go. It means remembering. And so with my heart full of joy, I thank you, Gayle. For giving everyone a choice. For showing us that the blooming flower might grow into a tall sapling, reaching for the skies. And so I believe that your books will not only stand the test of time, but the test of love. You have breathed life into your characters, and through them, others. So thank you. And always remember to keep writing.

Sincerely Yours,

Thea Millenson-Wilens