When I was a kid, my favorite Christmas gift—well second to anything furry, four legged and friendly—was a book. My aunt, who was tuned in to who I was and what I liked, gave me my first hardbound edition of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague. The story tugged me in like a taffy pull. Wesley Dennis’ illustrations were exquisite, ponies with kids my age. The Beebe kids in the story got to keep the ponies, care for them, and ride them on the dunes of the Atlantic Ocean beach. I was on fire, torn between jealousy and aspiration.
Trying to ease my pain, or quiet me down, the adults in my life told me it was a story and not reality. I fell for it until I looked up Chincoteague in our old reliable 1950’s World Book Encyclopedia. The book Mom sent us to when she couldn’t answer our questions. We had the whole set, filling a six-foot shelf.
The teeny tiny print on onion skin thin paper meant it took a lifetime to find answers, and I had no patience. But I did find out there was a yearly occasion called Pony Penning Day on Chincoteague Island. I looked further and discovered that the Beebe family was real! The story was real! The ponies lived on Chincoteague Island and adjacent Assateague Island on the east coast of Virginia. Once a year they were rounded up and pushed to swim across the channel where they were penned up to await their new homes. This way the island wouldn’t become overpopulated and unable to sustain the animals. My heart went to the poor lonesome ones left behind. Also, I worried about how frightened the newly penned ponies were feeling.
I needed to get to the bottom of this. I was sure Ms. Henry was too busy writing more books to answer a letter from me, and I didn’t want to slow her down. So, I wrote to the illustrator Wesley Dennis instead. My expectations were all over the place, as those of only a nine-year old can be, but I felt certain he would answer.
The day came when I arrived home from school to a manila envelope on the kitchen table, addressed to me. I remember walking around the table, touching the envelope, turning my back then flicking my head around to see if it was still there. Finally, I settled down enough to painstakingly open the envelope and peek inside. What I found was pure treasure. Mr. Dennis had not only written a note to me but had sent a picture of himself, his horse, and his new pet Emu.
We became pen pals. I wish I had copies of what I sent him. After a few shared short letters, the pinnacle of miracles happened, he sent a sketch he had just done for a book called Fools Over Horses written by Helen Orr. I’ll tell you, this was my guy. I didn’t care if he was fifty and I was nine. He loved and sketched animals, knew all about horses, and was willing to make time for a kid. He was a god! I made plans to get to Virginia, meet him and the Beebe kids. Maybe I would bring home a pony. My nine-year-old brain had no idea this was all impossible. But wow was it fun while the dream lasted.
Fast forward to 1999 with my class of third graders. I shared my Wesley Dennis story and offered a project. They could write to an author whose writing they enjoyed. It was completely optional, and I warned them that authors are busy, they get millions of letters, and they may not answer. However, if they wanted to take a chance, I would edit their letters, stamp, and prepare a return envelope and mail them. The return address was the school.
We gave the authors two months ,and if they didn’t answer, I promised to buy the student a book from the bookfair just because they put in the effort. When they were finished reading the book, they could add it to the classroom library for all to share. Out of a class of twenty, about ten opted in and five or six received letters from the authors. It was fun and even those students who opted out were excited about the few answered letters, I think it stirred something inside them.
We talked about books and authors the rest of the school year.