Owen Wagner, a fifth-grade student from Bear Creek School was recently recognized as the Pennsylvania state winner of the “Letters About Literature” competition. This contest is sponsored by the Library of Congress, and asks its participants to craft letter to authors of books, poems or speeches (either living or dead) and write about how the authors’ works have personally affected them. Owen wrote about Erin Entrada’s Kelly’s book “Hello, Universe” for his submission and in particular, how the main character, Virgil, taught him to be brave and stand up for himself.
Owen said part of why this lesson meant a lot to him was how he used to be bullied at school and described the bullying he endured in second grade.
“Why? I don’t know. … I didn’t stand up for myself, they acted like I was a complete weirdo,” he wrote.
After spending some time in homeschool, Owen and his parents decided he would try going back to school for his fifth grade year.
Owen’s father, Chris Wagner, said, “We were aware of what he was going through but not how he was connecting or how it affected him. Reading this book and Owen’s letter taught us how to help him through these situations.”
Owen went on to mention that this new school year was amazing for him, due in part to learning to stand up for himself.
“My classmates are amazing, and I feel no possibility of ever being made fun of like that again,” he wrote. “It hasn’t happened since … and the truth is, I am smart. We are all smart. We’re all bright, clever and creative.”
After submitting his letter to the judges, Owen and his teacher, Alicia Sterner, waited to hear the results. Three winners would be chosen throughout grades 4-12 for the state levels. The top ten state winners then go on to be national finalists.
“I remember on Friday, Mrs. Sterner told me I had won and it was announced on Monday during announcements,” Owen said. “Everyone kept congratulating me after that.”
Owen’s mother, Beth Wagner, said the entire staff of Bear Creek was excited for Owen’s accomplishment.
“Mrs. Sterner was ecstatic,” she said. “It was her idea to submit everyone’s letter and she called me on Friday afternoon after Owen was told and got home from school. I also sent a copy of the principal who was so proud.”
After Beth Wagner read the letter, she found author Erin Entrada Kelly’s Facebook page and reached out to her with a copy of it as well, not knowing what to expect.
“She’s somewhat local, from Philadelphia,” Beth Wagner said. “After a few weeks she wrote back and said, ‘You have no idea how much this means to me. I always wonder if what I do makes a difference.’” After this exchange her novel was awarded the 2018 John Newbery Medal for most
outstanding contribution to children’s literature of the year. She wrote again shortly after her own win saying she would send out a signed copy of the book with the newly awarded medal. Owen and his family were touched by her generosity.
“Books have always been a part of me,” Owen’s mother Beth said regarding the experience. “I am a librarian and when I was told to read Owen’s letter I was of course crying, after that both myself and my husband Chris read the book as well.”
Owen and the other winners Claire Venanzi of Pottstown for her letter to Misty Copeland about “Life in Motion,” Ellen Poplavska of Allison Park for her letter to Stephen King about “Mr. Mercedes” and Clare A. Troll of Somerset for her letter to E. B. White about “Charlotte’s Web,” will be recognized at a gathering at Penn State’s Center for the Book. Each winner also receives a cash prize of $200. From all submission from all states, 10 will then go on to be national finalists recognized in Washington, D.C. Owen and his fellow winners have not yet been notified if they are finalists at time of publication; they are anticipated to be announced in early June.
In addition to reading for pleasure, Owen enjoys art and math class, playing for his school’s chess team and playing viola and piano.
“I enjoy being creative,” Owen said. And just like Virgil’s character Owen wrote about, Owen adds that, “I just had to find confidence. Because the difference is, I’m different.”