March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

WV Fifth Grader Donates $10,000 Prize to School Library

Usually graduates receive gifts—but 11-year-old Darius Atefat-Peckham decided to give one instead. He donated the $10,000 he won this spring in the Letters About Literature national writing contest to his elementary school library.

“While [my school] gave me the gift of learning, it feels nice to give them a gift from me,” says the 11-year-old from the Huntington, WV, about Meadows Elementary School, where he graduated last week.

DARIUS(Original Import)Darius (left) took home the grand prize for his letter to Mark Doty, the writer of Dog Years: A Memoir (Harper Perennial, 2008), about Doty’s dog Arden, and how he helped the author cope with the loss of his partner. Darius, who lost his mother and older brother in a car crash eight years ago, says he felt a connection to Doty because Darius’s father bought him a Golden Retriever named Jack-Jack to help him deal with their tragedy.

“[Doty] asked great questions about what do living things feel in the last moments before they die,” says Darius. “It really makes you think.”

Reading has always been a true pleasure for the soon-to-be sixth grader, who spends a lot of time in his school library, staffed by beloved school librarian, Kitty Dawson, or “Ms. Kitty.” He worked as a library helper during recess this school year and is thrilled that the $10,000 will go to the school and library.

While some funds will be allocated to teachers and classroom use, Darius also hopes the library will use some of the prize money to buy more reading materials for students. And he has clear ideas about the kinds of titles the library should stock.

“A lot of things in the library are little kids books,” he says. “I would like them to widen the selection and keep their minds open. There are a lot of beautiful literary works that they don’t have, in that they’re too deep or sad. And I think adults should understand that kids can handle that stuff, and they deserve to have the right to read what they want to read.”

In fact, Darius is writing his own memoir, based on his relationship with Jack-Jack and already has completed about 17 pages. Writing, says Darius, is in his blood; his mother, Susan Atefat-Peckham, was a poet, and his father, Joel Peckham, and stepmother, Rachael, are both writers.

No wonder his passion is reading.

“I love writing and reading,” he says. “A lot of kids play video games and don’t see anything around them. When I’m reading, they have to shake me to get out of the book. My mind takes over, and it brings me to another place. I love that feeling.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

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