Elizabeth Ferreira was at home with a friend when her mother called her over from the other room. Confused, she thought that she might be in trouble, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Her mother handed her the phone. On the other end was Director of the Foundation Year Program Daniel Brandes, informing Ferreira that she won the King’s essay contest.
“I was so excited because I didn’t think that I was going to win,” says Ferreira.
This year, King’s invited grade 12 students to write a short essay to answer the question What is the continued value of the book in the information age? Students were encouraged to use a book that they are interested in to answer the question. Ferreira’s essay stood out for its argument that novels are valuable because they engage readers’ empathy and can portray multiple perspectives on a given topic.
Ferreira used the book The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to argue her point. Set during the Great Depression, the book follows the struggles of the Joads, a family of migrant farmers who are forced to leave their home in Oklahoma in hope of a better life in California.
“I wanted to write on a book that I liked, but I also wanted to write on a book that was about something that I didn’t have a lot of previous knowledge [of],” says Ferreira. “Because I was comparing the book and the way that it shows different perspectives to the internet and how it can show only one perspective.”
Throughout the story, the Joads face different obstacles, including discrimination from other farming communities. In her essay, Ferreira argues that Steinbeck is asking the reader to learn about the hardships that actual migrant farmers faced through the experiences of the Joad family. Ferreira writes that books are important in the information age is because “[they] have a powerful ability to transform our point of view from within.”
Part of the inspiration for her essay is because she is concerned that reading books is becoming overlooked.
“No one reads books, but everyone is on the internet,” says Ferreira.
This is the third year of the King’s Essay Writing Contest for High School Students. Before the contest deadline, students have the opportunity to attend a writing workshop led by Foundation Year Program faculty who explain how to write an academic essay, from writing a thesis to editing their paper.
According to Ferreira, books, particularly novels, are important because they encourage readers to recognize themselves in each character, both good and bad. Ferreira writes, “[readers] recognize elements of [themselves] in so many of the characters in this book: in the naïve migrants, in the self-serving landowners, in the frightened, bigoted Californians, and even, at times, in the brutal authorities.” This is important because “self-recognition can lead us to understand the various sides of social issues more completely.”
Ferreira contrasts this with digital platforms, particularly social media, which for many, characterize the information age.
“Novels generate empathy by creating both protagonists and antagonists to whom the reader can relate.” she says. “Emotion can change our viewpoints if, as the reader, we can identify with multiple characters, closely follow them through the story and see how the decisions they make affect others in the world around them.”
For Ferreira, one of the most compelling aspects of The Grapes of Wrath is how it demonstrates that, in the end, “there’s no [clear] answer.” The novel tells a story about migrants without compromising the portrayal of hardship, discrimination, and moral dilemmas, giving readers valuable insights into perspectives that they would otherwise find unimaginable, if they had not read the book.