23rd Annual Letters about Literature Awards Announced

Massachusetts Center for the Book (MCB) has announced the 2023 Top Honor and Honors student writers in its flagship program for students, Letters About Literature (LAL). This Commonwealth-wide reading and writing initiative invites students from Grades 4 to 12 to write letters to authors about the books that have had special meaning to them.

The fifteen honorees, representing the top 1.5% of this year’s program submissions, were celebrated at a virtual awards celebration on May 17. On behalf of the Board of Directors, Massachusetts author Alexandra Marshall welcomed the students, families, teachers, librarians, judges, staff, and fellow MCB board members.  Marshall commended the students on their work and also told them, as a writer, how important it is for authors to hear from readers, because that’s why authors write: “with the wish to be read.”

Representative Lindsay Sabadosa (First Hampshire) provided the legislative welcome to those in attendance and continued the theme of the communications loop that students have completed. She noted that since the time of the ancients, great thinkers have believed that great writing should teach, move, and delight us. She commended the students for showing in their letters how books taught them lessons and also prompted strong feelings and great pleasure. “In turn, your letters have taught, moved, and delighted us with your articulate thoughts about the importance of books in your lives,” she concluded with appreciation.

The Top Honors and Honors Writers in Massachusetts Letters About Literature 2023

Level 1 (Grades 4-6):

Top Honor: Suryavir Jaisinhji Nallari-Jhala of Cambridge, a 5th grader at Belmont Day School and Maria L. Baldwin School, Cambridge, for his letter to Michael Dorris about Morning Girl

Honors: Saabir Ameer of Northborough (Al-Hamra Academy, Shrewsbury); Sofia Celli of Marblehead (Village School, Marblehead); Ash Quasney-Sandler of West Roxbury (The Rashi School, Dedham); Sofia Wolfe of Reading (A. W. Coolidge Middle School)

Level 2 (Grades 7 & 8):

Top Honor: Bryn Rufo of Grafton, an 8th grader at Whitinsville Christian School, for her letter to James Patterson about Jacky Ha-Ha

Honors: Avery Condon of Canton (Montrose School, Medfield); Caroline Euber of Wilbraham (Wilbraham Middle School); Damilola Graciella Olabisi of Marblehead (Marblehead Veterans Middle School); Luca Rice of Westborough (Sarah W. Gibbons Middle School)

Level 3 (Grades 9-12):

Top Honor: Sophie Cutrer of Vineyard Haven, an 11th grader at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, for her letter to Ned Vizzini about It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Honors: Yumna El-Dib of Foxborough (Al-Noor Academy, Mansfield); Maya Johnson of Jamaica Plain (Melrose High School); Jane Lawley of Methuen (Methuen High School); Elyza Tuan of Millis (Montrose School, Medfield)

Commonwealth judges in the 2023 program were Celeste Bruno, Communications Director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners; Trey Jones, Middle and High School English teacher, Northampton public schools; and Daniel Guerrero, audiovisual translator of English, Spanish, French and German.

For additional information and to read some of the letters from the Top Honors & Honors writers, visit www.massbook.org/current-awards

The Massachusetts Center for the Book, chartered as the Commonwealth Affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, is a public-private partnership charged with developing, supporting and promoting cultural programming that advances the cause of books and reading and enhances the outreach potential of Massachusetts public libraries. 

Massachusetts Center for the Book, 17 New South Street, Ste 302, Northampton, 01060.  info@massbook.org  

Get to Know Commissioner Mary Ann Cluggish

(Commissioner Cluggish in the center of Blades and Lauren Baker at a summer reading event at Tyngsboro Public Library in 2022 .)

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

Since this is my last year on the MBLC, it seems a bit odd to be introducing myself, but here goes. Just being on the MBLC and participating in events is interesting and fun. But speaking at Groundbreakings and Library Dedications is an honor and brings a special satisfaction. MBLC Summer Reading Events are simply delightful and again, a satisfying activity in helping to generate interest in reading in young children.  It has been an honor to represent the MBLC at Legislative Breakfasts, meet Legislators, and advocate for Libraries. I enjoyed served as Chair for a couple of terms and certainly enjoyed the Executive Board.

(2017 Hopkinton Ribbon Cutting)

What do you love about your local library?

What I love about my own Library, is that it’s very well-run and busy. As Trustee Chair, I shepherded the construction of the new library through Town Meeting despite being vigorously opposed for two years by three different groups. I then was intimately involved with the construction for a year and a half; so intimately involved, that the Director and I chose the color of the mortar between the bricks! Whenever I walk into the building, I am so filled with pride that it feels like my head is going to explode. I also participated heavily in raising $3.6 million dollars for the construction of the new building and was part of the team that set up the Foundation. I served as a Trustee for 12 years; I am still active peripherally in various activities.

Plaque honoring Mary Ann Cluggish at Wellesley Free Library.

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

Who I am can be summed up in these categories: Travel, the Outdoors, Wildlife, Birding, Water, and Town Affairs. I got the travel bug early, saved my money, and traveled around Europe for a year when I was 22 years old. I’ve been on three African Safaris and to most of the countries in South America. I’ve also traveled the world with birding groups to search for and identify birds.  I’m very proud of the fact that in my lifetime I’ve identified over 1000 species in the wild. On weekends in the winter, I can be found walking the beaches of Massachusetts looking for Snowy Owls.

(Left: Commissioner Cluggish is an avid birder. Do you know what type of bird this is? Right: Commissioner Cluggish in Argentina with a penguin!)

On the water: I volunteered weekly on the Boston Harbor Islands every summer for 13 years, leading tours and answering questions. I’ve done several whale and orca research trips with Earthwatch and similar organizations.  I’ve also been kayaking the rivers of Massachusetts for a long time.

Insofar as Town Affairs go, I was part of a group of 5 women who founded the Town’s Recycling program way back in 1971. It was the first in the state and one of the first in the nation. Both the EPA and Mass Audubon surprised us with awards. I also was part of a group of 13 women who started an Environmental Aide program in the public schools. We took children on nature walks, and taught them winter tracking, simple geology, tree identification, etc.

I’ve been an elected Town Meeting Member for 40 years, served on three elected boards, on the Finance Committee, the Permanent Building Committee, and on several appointed Ad Hoc study committees. I served as chair of an Open Space Management Study Committee, convinced the Town Meeting to approve the merging of 7 different authorities and set up a Natural Resources Commission. As the first Chair, I negotiated the purchase of 42 acres of open space, and persuaded Town Meeting to approve funding the purchase.

Professionally, I was a Vice President of Sales and Marketing for a small company, and then a Trainer/Consultant to High Technology Companies. Both of these positions enabled me to travel both nationally and internationally.

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life?  

As a young reader I was inspired by books about early aviators, with Amelia Earhart leading the bunch of course.

What are you reading right now?

Crossroads by Johnathan Franzen.

(Commissioner Cluggish gives a rousing speech about the continued importance of libraries and congratulates the town’s hard work at Salisbury Public Library in June 2014).

Get to Know Commissioner Vicky Biancolo

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

I particularly enjoy visiting libraries and getting inspired by the professionalism, creativity, thoughtfulness, and care I see in libraries across Massachusetts. I also appreciate being part of important conversations that affect library services for so many.

What do you love about your local library?

I have lived in Massachusetts for most of my life, and I have loved all of my local public libraries, from the tiny reading library in Richmond to Worcester’s large, beautifully updated modern library. I love browsing the stacks, finding a comfortable chair, and tasting many different genres, authors, and subjects. I particularly appreciate that libraries are often the only indoor gathering spaces in a community where people are not required to purchase anything!

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

I work full time as the Director of Library Services at Worcester Academy. In my free time I love to travel, hike, kayak, read, and watch movies with my family.

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life?  

In high school I was introduced to Jane Austen, which started a life-long love affair with Regency-era drama. It was the first time I realized that people’s hopes, wishes, and challenges of the past were pretty similar to those of today, and thereby made literature–and history–come alive for me.

What are you reading right now?

I tend to have two books going at the same time, one fiction and one nonfiction. At the moment I am reading Anxious People by Fredrik Backman and Africa Is Not a Country: Notes on a Bright Continent by Dipo Faloyin.

Get to Know Commissioner George Comeau

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

I love traveling the Commonwealth and seeing the richness of the collections and offerings at public libraries. I once held an original draft of “Stopping By the Woods” by Robert Frost – and it was in the archives at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. This was transcendent for me, and something I will never forget. You can walk into almost any public library and experience a world beyond the imagination. Knowing that librarians are at the core of knowledge and helping unlock questions – it is a power that I appreciate the most about these institutions and speaks to the highest of democratic ideals. 

A photo of the original draft of Stopping by the Woods” that Commissioner Comeau shared. From a note he wrote in 2014: ‘Today I got to behold the original Robert Frost poem, Stopping By Woods. Plus an original manuscript of A Further Range. Interestingly, the person before me that photographed the poem was Annie Leibovitz.’ “

What do you love about your local library?

I love the staff, the patrons, the special collections, and the fact that we have been opening minds for such a long time. 

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

I keep bees. I preserve old buildings. I travel. I produce large events and help market Downtown Boston as a destination. I also write historical essays. My favorite activity though is hiking with friends and spending time in the solitude of the woods – just like Robert Frost!!

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life? 

For sure… Endurance – the story of Shackleton’s voyage. Also, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran is a book that has spoken to me in each stage of my life thus far. Every few years, I will turn to that book for new reflections upon my own life and where I am going.

What are you reading right now?

Ah, the NYT recommended a true crime book called Who Killed Jane Stanford and I recently wrote about Leland Stanford and a fabulous racehorse he sold and was stabled in my hometown (Canton, MA). So, the book is on my iPhone courtesy of Libby and it is a real digital page-burner. 

Former MBLC Director Robert Maier and Commissioner Comeau present Patience Jackson with a commemorative map of the 177 successful construction projects in 2013.

Get to Know Commissioner Karen Traub

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

I love visiting libraries throughout the Commonwealth and hearing the many ways they serve their communities with materials, programs and events. I’m proud to live in Massachusetts, a longtime leader in the nation when it comes to libraries.

Commissioner Traub & Blades at East Forest Park in 2022.

What do you love about your local library?

The MN Spear library in Shutesbury is one of three jewel-box libraries designed by 19th century architect Roswell Putnam. In spite of the fact that it is a tiny, one room cottage with no running water, it magically offers access to millions of books and digital content including eBooks, audiobooks and movies that I can enjoy from home or on the road.

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

I enjoy my work as an acupressurist and my hobbies of hiking the Quabbin woods, historical research, and reenactment, and performing with the Crescent Dancers Middle Eastern Belly Dance troupe. 

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life?  

When I was a tween, reading the biographies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan transported me from the safety of my loving home to the horror of a 19th century poorhouse, showed how words can bring light to the darkness, and made me believe it’s possible to overcome challenges to create a meaningful life. 

As an adult, my mind was blown by Layne Redmond’s book “When the Drummers were Women; a Spiritual History of Rhythm.” I didn’t know drumming used to be a part of women’s spiritual practice, that history is biased by the fact it was written by the conquerors, and that there was an ancient Egyptian goddess of libraries. I now have a tattoo of Seshat on my right leg. 

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading “Cleopatra: a Life” by Stacy Shiffer (hardcover) and “Rachel to the Rescue” by Elinor Lipman (audio on the Libby app).

Commissioner Traub at the Grand Opening of Reuben Hoar Library in Littleton in 2021.

Get to Know Chair Commissioner Debby Conrad

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

My favorite thing about being a commissioner is that after 40 years as a librarian, I can continue to contribute to the Massachusetts library community.  I particularly enjoy visiting libraries across the Commonwealth, talking to staff, and seeing the technologies that libraries have installed.  And of course, I love talking to people about the wonderful libraries we have in Massachusetts.

What do you love about your local library?

I love my local Friends group and I love being an active member.  The Friends have been supporting the Ventress Memorial Library for more than 50 years and since my retirement I have had time to work on their fundraising and membership activities. 

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

I walk dogs!  Until recently we had 3 dogs (now down to 2) and they each love to walk.  Living in Marshfield we have the option of walking on the street, the beach, and local bogs.  Everyone in the area knows me – one time someone asked me if I was a professional dog walker.  My husband and I also like to travel to the Southwest and Rocky Mountain areas to hike.  My favorite activity is traveling to Tennessee to visit my son’s family and spend time with my 12-year-old grandson who is a Rubik cube whiz.

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life?  

It is difficult to narrow this down to just a few books because different books have inspired me at different times of my life.  I would have to say now that reading “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn had the most profound impact on me.  After reading this book, I resolved to look at current events in light of societal trends and prejudices that are built-in to our society and to work to move us beyond into a more diverse and open community.

What are you reading right now?

“We Don’t Know Ourselves” by Fintan O’Toole.  It is a personal history of modern Ireland and I am learning a lot about Ireland since the 1950’s.  After I finish that I am going to move on to some light fiction.

(Left: Chair Commissioner Conrad testifying at the Ways & Means Hearing on March 31, 2023. Right: Chair Commissioner Conrad with at Library Legislative Day, March 15, 2023 with staff from her local library, Ventress Memorial in Marshfield.)

Get to Know Commissioner Jessica Vilas Novas

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

In my short time as Commissioner, I have enjoyed visiting libraries and getting inspired by the creativity and thoughtfulness at play across Massachusetts. I always leave the libraries with the desire to return with my children. I also enjoy being a voice at the table where I can speak up for equity and equality, and being part of important conversations that affect library services for so many.

What do you love about your local library?

Although my family and I recently made our home in Haverhill, my longtime local library in Lawrence is where I enjoyed story times in the children’s room as a child, and where my son got his first library card. It’s also where I had the honor of leading as Director and being a part of growth and change so I love the special connection I have to it. Arts and culture play a large role in the Lawrence community and the library joined in by partnering with a local art organization on a 40-foot mural featuring Lawrence’s past to present with images of mill children to a young girl from the City today. Driving by that mural makes me smile as it helped to serve as a welcome back to many families who had not been engaging who could identify with the familiar images and know that the library was there to serve them. 

The 40-foot mural outside of Lawrence Public Library.

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

I enjoy traveling and dining with my family and experiencing shows from theater, concerts, and art exhibits which means we are catching up from the slowdown in 2020! The arts are important in my life and have led me to leading community writing clubs and exposing my son and daughter to different art forms. Little Ava loves to paint, and Jordan is learning to play the drums. Professionally, I’ve been enjoying growing my consultancy this past year where I am focused on providing thought leadership to executive directors and managers, as well as mentorship to their teams. I have the honor of co-producing the Bread and Roses labor festival for a second year in Lawrence through my consulting and look forward to supporting more individuals and organizations. I also lead worship at church and serve as a deacon.

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life?

There are so many to choose from and they change according to the aspect of my life. I will say that one book that changed how I viewed leadership and organizational change is Jim Collin’s Good to Great. I read it while getting my Masters in Education and it has since served as the basis for how I approach my work, becoming the framework I used as a library director and now while coaching individuals. I was also greatly inspired by John Maxwell’s Put Your Dream to the Test which I read when I ventured off to live in LA after college and which motivated me to never stop working towards my goals. Aside from leadership books, I enjoy memoirs as I am deeply interested in who people really are and these vulnerable pieces of work allow us a better glimpse. I also think learning more about what makes someone tick versus only knowing the public version of them allows us to see the whole person, making us more authentic in our leadership and work and being better communicators.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading and studying two cases from Harvard Business School to prepare for a day of learning this week, as part of an executive leadership network I am a part of called LEADS. 

Boston Bruins PJ Drive event in 2019 with Commissioner Mary Ann Cluggish (leftmost) and Commissioner Jessica Vilas Novas (second to the right) when she was library director at Lawrence Public Library.

Get to Know Commissioner Les Ball

Did You Know? 🌠 The MBLC is the oldest state library agency in the country! 📚 Since the MBLC was established in 1890, library commissioners appointed by the governor have been tasked with the responsibility to develop, coordinate and improve library services throughout the Commonwealth. This week we are spotlighting *Commissioner Les Ball* who was appointed in 2018 and ending his term this year.
Commissioner Les Ball giving remarks at the Marlborough Public Library Groundbreaking in 2021.

What is your favorite thing about being a commissioner?

The most fun that a Commissioner has is breaking ground for a new or expanded library. The next is cutting the ribbon for a new library.  At these events you see the positive impacts of our construction program on a community. Everyone at these events are happy and excited for their communities and what the library will do for them. I get to meet wonderful people all of whom give back to their communities in a variety of ways. It is also important for us to recognize that we are the lobbying group that is most responsible for keeping state funds for libraries growing. When I see these budgets increase, I am pleased with the success that we have had.

What do you love about your local library?

My local library, The Scituate Town Library, was rebuilt about 5 years ago with a grant from the MBLC.  I was President of the Scituate Library Foundation that raised nearly $2M for the building. I have a great deal of pride that shows when I walk into the building. Beyond being a building, the library employees are some of the nicest people that you would ever want to meet.  Their presence gives you a feeling of belonging that is extended to everyone. It is the only building in town that welcomes every citizen whether they are a three-year old for a story time, a teenager who needs help with a school project, or an elderly person who just wants to sit by the fire and read today’s newspaper. It’s home.

What do you like to do when you’re not being a commissioner?

(Commissioner Ball is pictured here with his dog, Lucille (Lucy) Ball!)

I am a golfer and live on a golf course. Needless to say, I play lots of golf. I also attend a lot of golfing events where I work with my son who manages the media for these events. Also, I love to travel with trips planned for Florida, California and Europe in the near future.  I spend quite a bit of time playing guitar. After about 15 years of playing, I am not good but enjoy playing for myself. I try to learn a new song each week, mostly Beatles, America, Eagles, and other popular groups. Spending time with my wife and family is a high priority.

What books have inspired you? *or* What book changed your life?  

Certainly, the Bible is the most inspirational book ever written. Books that enhance my faith are high on the list. While working, I read most of the books about leadership that came out. I am inspired by reading biographies about former presidents and other historic figures.

What are you reading right now?

I am reading Kristin Hannah’s “The Great Alone” about a family that moves to Alaska and trials that they go through. I am a member of a couple book club that has been in existence for over 45 years with nearly the same members. We read about 10 books per year. We have just finished reading “The Violin Conspiracy” by Brendan Slocumb. I am looking forward to our discussion about the book that will occur in a few days.  However, one of the best parts  of the group is that we each nominate a new book and explain why we should read it. I get a lot of reading ideas from that discussion. 

Apply for the Solar Eclipse for Libraries (SEAL) Workshop

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners will be hosting a Solar Eclipse for Libraries (SEAL) Workshop on April 13, 2023, from 10am-4pm. The workshop will be held in person at the McAulliffe Branch of the Framingham Public Library. Lunch will be provided.
Registration applications will be open until Tuesday March 14.

This workshop is designed to prepare and empower public library staff to facilitate meaningful solar and space science programs for their patrons that build curiosity, knowledge and inspiration. Attendees will receive hands-on training on operating solar telescopes and other methods for direct and indirect solar viewing, best practices for developing and facilitating STEM programs, and how to engage with community partners and library-specific digital resource networks.

Attendees will also be able to sign up for free solar eclipse glasses to distribute to their communities in advance of both eclipses. Star Net facilitators bring many years of experience building the STEM capacity of public library staff.  

The workshop will use materials from specially designed circulation kits that will be provided to the MBLC. Training will highlight best practices in using these kits but the strategies, activities and resources shared during the workshop will be useful to attendees whether they have access to a circulation kit or not. Two kits will have a focus on programming for youth and two will have a focus on working with a multigenerational audience. Every library will be able to borrow these kits after the conclusion of the SEAL training.

The goals of the solar science workshop are to help library staff:

1. Build on the excitement of the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses and engage their patrons in solar science activities!

2. Safely and effectively facilitate direct (e.g., solar telescope and Sunoculars) and indirect methods of safe solar viewing.

3. Develop and facilitate exciting and interactive STEM programming at their library.

This workshop will include the following elements:

• Advice on engaging with community partners to promote and support solar science programs • Ample opportunities for peer-to-peer networking and group discussions • Direct instruction on setting up and using solar telescopes and sun spotters.
•“Guide on the Side” facilitation strategies for STEM learning • Help navigating STAR Net’s online community, where public library staff can share eclipse-related programming ideas, strategies, and resources.
• Hands-on facilitation of interactive solar science programs designed for library settings.
• Advice on leveraging NASA volunteer networks like the Night Sky Network and Solar System Ambassadors.

Please note, per request of the StarNet Facilitation team who are coming from Boulder, Colorado to offer this training we are only be able to accommodate 35 people due to the hands-on nature of the workshop. Potential participants are requested to fill out a short form stating how they will use the workshop training to further STEM engagement activities in their community. Selection of attendees will be based on the strength of each individual application.

Participants will be notified of their successful registration by email after March 18 . Confirmation of your participation with further details regarding arrangements for lunch will be provided at that time.

Please use the following link to submit your registration:

Art to reflect the community: Forbes Library uses anonymous donation to purchase a range of BIPOC art

A couple years ago, Forbes Library received a $10,000 donation from a donor who wanted to remain anonymous but also wanted the money used for a very specific purpose: to broaden the Northampton library’s permanent art collection.
The library donor — the person lives in the area, according to Downing — told Forbes officials that the library “ideally should reflect the more diverse community we have today, as it’s a community space itself, and we agree,” Downing said.

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