Holiday Thank-you Notes

Dear Nerdy Book Club Members,

I’m sure many of your families had holiday traditions when you were growing up. My family did, too. One of our family Christmas traditions was that on December 26, my Christmas loot was basically held hostage by my mother until I wrote my thank-you notes. Year after year, my kind, generous relatives received hastily-scribbled, borderline illegible thank-you notes that sounded exactly the same:

Dear [GIFT GIVER],

Thank you SO much for the lovely [ITEM]. It is exactly what I [WANTED/NEEDED]! I can’t wait to [VERB APPROPRIATE TO ITEM’S USE] with [ITEM]. Happy Holidays, and thank you again!

Love,
Melissa

I think it’s safe to assume that no one who ever received a thank-you note from me would have expected me to become any kind of writer.

For this December 26, I’m going to deviate from this time-tested thank-you note formula. Today I want to thank the authors who have made a difference to my students over the past year. But first I want to tell you about my idea for a really cool invention.

If I were a brilliant inventor I would invent some kind of impending-awesomeness-detecting device that can sense the exact moment when a kid is about to have a game-changingly meaningful experience with a book. If I had an impending-awesomeness-detecting device, I could have a camera ready to capture that student’s face at the exact moment of book-induced awesomeness. I would need my camera, you see, because sometimes it’s not the student’s words but the look on the his or her face that reveals the book’s true power.

Take, for example, my student Chris. When he recently finished The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger, this is what Chris said to me: “Mrs. Thomson, I finished.”

I finished. If I were making a movie of my teaching life, “I finished” wouldn’t be best-original-screenplay material.

See, this is where my impending-awesomeness-detecting device would have come in handy. Because if I had taken a picture of Chris’s face at that moment, it would have shown him saying more than just “I finished.” His face said, “Mrs. Thomson, I finished. I have been abandoning lots of books this year, but I finished this one. I am so, so proud of myself. Oh, and I’m going to volunteer to do a book talk for the first time this year.”

Thank you, Tom Angleberger, for that look on Chris’s face. Thank you for the book that let him begin seeing himself as a proud, confident reader.

Next I want to thank Kate DiCamillo for Opal’s imperfect parents in Because of Winn-Dixie. After we read the book this fall, my quiet student Ana found the courage to read aloud—in front of the whole class—a personal essay she had written. It was called “Some Families Have Problems They Can’t Fix,” and despite the vagueness of the phrase “some families,” the essay was clearly about the pain of Ana’s parents’ divorce. After she finished reading about what “some families” have gone through, a student asked, “Did that…happen to you?”

“Yeah,” Ana whispered.

The room was silent. “I’m sorry,” the student said. There was another silence, Then more students raised their hands to empathize with Ana or share their own similar experiences.

Another brief exchange that, on the surface (“Yeah”–”I’m sorry”) doesn’t say much, but any of you who work with children can imagine what a powerful moment that was. It was a moment that I don’t think I’d have witnessed had we not read Because of Winn-Dixie. Opal’s emotional honesty in Because of Winn-Dixie created a safe space for Ana to be emotionally honest with her classmates. Ana saw her classmates respond to Opal with empathy, so she believed they might respond to her the same way. And she was right.

Thank you, Kate DiCamillo.

Now a posthumous thank you to the great Roald Dahl, whose books have provided meaningful moments for many of my students over the years. This year was no exception. In the spring, my student David lost his beloved uncle, who had lived with David and his mother. I saw David change in the way I’d seen other children change who had suffered a great loss. I imagine that, unfortunately, many of you  have seen this with your own students.  It seems like these students instantly look older, like they carry a weight, like they intimately understand the phrase “heavy heart” much too early in life.

In grief, your thoughts go where they want to go. They go to that hole in your heavy heart and it can seem impossible to pull yourself up out of that sadness. Who could blame David for not exactly caring as much about books during his sorrow?

I don’t remember what eventually led David to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but one day, a couple of months after his uncle’s death, he was reading it in my classroom. I called the kids to line up for recess, and David didn’t move. “David,” I said. He didn’t respond.

I walked over to him. “David,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder.

He jumped about a half a mile straight up. Then he looked at me with utter surprise. “I…I forgot I was here,” he said. Then the biggest, brightest smile took over his whole face. The first smile I had seen from him in months that couldn’t be described as wistful. He looked so happy, and so young.

Thank you, Roald Dahl, for the book that let David forget he was here.

I could go on for pages and pages thanking the other authors who have provided powerful reading moments for my students this year. Thank you Kate Messner, Katherine Applegate, Abby Kline, Sharon Creech, Jennifer Holm, Louis Sachar, Mary Pope Osborne, Augusta Scattergood, Meg Cabot, Gary Paulsen, Dan Gutman, JK Rowling, Jeanne DuPrau, Rick Riordan, Barbara Park, Eve Bunting, Betsy Byars, Steve Jenkins, Nick Bruel…really, I could go on and on. Thank you to the authors whose books are covered with shiny stickers, and thank you to those whose books may never be on any short list. If your book made a difference to one of my students,  if it was exactly what they wanted or needed, you deserve all the shiny stickers in the world.

Thank you, too, to the teachers and librarians who put the right books in the hands of the right students. There isn’t enough fancy stationery on Earth to thank you properly.

Happy Holidays, and thank you again.

Love,
Melissa

Melissa Thomson is a fifth-grade language arts teacher in Alexandria,
Virginia, and the author of the Keena Ford series of early chapter
books. She is @melissathomson on Twitter.