The request was as simple as it was unusual.

Addressed to the Journal Star, the letter came from a fifth-grader at Cascade Christian School in Puyallup, Wash., near Tacoma. The girl had been assigned to write a report on a far-off place called Illinois. So she was hoping to get some help via a letter-to-the-editor.

"We are responsible for gathering as much information as we can about our state," she said, referring to Illinois. "If any of your readers would like to help me by sending any pictures, postcards, used license plates, fact products, etc., from your state, it would be greatly appreciated.

"Yours truly, Kayla V."

The letter, as with many to the newspaper that no one knows what to do with, landed on my desk. I found the letter curious in multiple ways. First, I was amazed that any child actually used the mail. Heck, you adult readers out there: When is the last time YOU sent a letter?

Second, it seemed remarkable that anyone would have a sincere interest in finding out more about the state, which is generally the butt of jokes.

Lastly, I didn't understand why Kayla V. just didn't just look at Wikipedia or Google to research Illinois. Maybe it's easier to let out-of-state readers do the work?

See, that's why I'm not a grade-school teacher. Not enough imagination. As it turns out, asking readers for help isn't the easy way out. It not only makes the project more intensive, but more interesting.

It's a pretty big project, one the school has been doing for years. Each fifth-grader is assigned a state, then sends letters to newspapers.

"They're trying to get the feel and experience of what it's like to live in a state," says Brittany Wubbolt, the school's campus-enrollment manager.

That way, the report isn't just a dreary recitation of facts and figures. The projects come together like a science fair, with each student creating an exhibit of items sent from newspaper readers. The entire school comes to the event.

"It's a huge deal," Wubbolt says.

But to a large degree, students are at the mercy of strangers in far-away states. Some get nothing.

"But some kids get a huge response, like, absolutely insane," Wubbolt says. "We've gotten books, t-shirts, hats, brochures, license plates ..."

License plates, huh? That'd be perfect for Illinois, because they're likely made by former governors.

OK, sorry. That's the Illinoisan in me creeping through. But my snarkiness makes me wonder if Kayla V. knows what she's getting into with Illinois.

Her classmates are getting up close and personal with perfectly self-respecting states with inspiring histories and promising futures. But Illinois? It's got political graft, pension debacle, immobilized government, impossibly high taxes and more governmental bodies that anyplace in the nation — along with the highest exodus rate of any state. How does a fifth-grader get her arms around that? How do you put that kind of dreadful mess onto a poster board?

So, I talked to Janice Daskam, the school's trusty administrative assistant, who is in charge of inspecting packages before they reach the students. After briefly explaining the general horror show that is Illinois, I asked what readers could submit.

"Well," she said, "what happens in Illinois?"

Fleeing, mostly. How to represent that? Maybe we could send exit signs. But my guess is, most fifth-graders wouldn't get the dark comedy.

Grapsing for more suggestions, Daskam said, "If a town has a specific thing they manufacture, like a candy bar, they might send a candy bar. Do you manufacture anything there?"

Well, there's this place called Deerfield that's home to a tractor company. But the tractors are made in central Illinois — at least, they still were as far as a few days ago.

"Maybe you could send a tractor," she said.

I think she somehow got the idea that we were talking about toy tractors, like the size of a Hot Wheels car. Otherwise, I don't think I can afford postage for a D8, nor fit one into a mailbox.

But there are other options, she said: "It's a whole variety. People send sausage, cheese and other food."

OK, now we're talking. I don't know about you, but I never went to a grade-school fair where cheese and sausage were served. Suddenly, school seems tastier than ever.

Agreeing is none other than Kayla V., who is known among her Puyallup peers as Kayla Vondran. She is 10 years old and says she is a big fan of spaghetti. Is that the favorite food in Washington?

"No,' she said, "it's the scones, like at the state fair."

Thanks, Kayla: We've just learned something about Washington. But, Kayla, what do you know about Illinois?

"Not much," she says. "Just Chicago. Like, the Chicago Bears."

I feel your pain. More importantly, Chicago is quite a ways from Peoria. What would you like for Peorians to send you?

"Recipes!" she said. "Like, the favorite foods there."

I like the way this kid thinks. No dreary report about the state bird or state flower (or, because Illinois is so weird, the state fossil). She's looking to illustrate our state via our taste buds.

This is her address: Kayla V., Cascade Christian School, 601 Ninth Ave. SE, Puyallup, WA, 98372.

I'm hoping we can do better than just recipes. Remember, some students get no response. Maybe some of our local eateries can sent their specialties. Keep in mind, this might be the only chance these poor souls ever get to sample a deep-fried pork tenderloin. I say, slide one into a giant envelope and send it west.

But we can go off the menu. Send anything you'd like, as long as it paints a picture of Peoria. But please, no boring suggestions about books on Betty Friedan or Fibber McGee or whoever. These are fifth-graders. Plus, books don't make for an interesting exhibit.

And I'm interested, too. Let me know at the address below.

What would you send Kayla? To you, what really says "Peoria"? Or "Illinois"?

I await your response. Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out how to mail her a pothole.

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at, and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on