Epistolary Novels, Old and New
April is Card and Letter Writing Month, and what better way to celebrate than to look at contemporary and older teen titles that tell their story with the help of the (fictional) postal service?
Plenty of novels are written as diaries, which convey a sense of privacy, confession, and secretiveness for the teen protagonists. So how do letters work? What does it mean when a traditional prose novel includes letters, as opposed to one written completely through that medium? I wanted to put together a list of both types of novels and consider what the formats imply, what letters mean to the characters, and what they mean to us. Feel free to add your own suggestions or impressions in the comments!
The Power of Sympathy (1789) by William Hill Brown
Yes, I went there. And yes, I know this might be a hard sell. But for readers willing to give an eighteenth century novel a try when it’s not homework, this book might be just the thing. I read it in college, and when my professor connected the parents in the novel (who are concerned, of course, with their daughters appearing moral and chaste and with their sons finding moral and chaste wives) to parents protesting the sexual content in the “Gossip Girl” TV show, it clicked. The specifics might have changed, but this book should still resonate with teens because it’s all about gossip, love, deceit, and parents who just don’t get it. Letters here allow people to keep secrets, something any teen knows about.
Readalikes: Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn and The Curse of Caste, or, the Slave Bride (1865) by Julia C. Collins
Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey (1996) by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Tish is required to keep a journal for class, but the way she understands it is to pretend as if she is writing to the teacher that assigned it, Mrs. Dunphrey. Like you can guess, her letters begin reluctant and slowly become longer and more developed, revealing a troubled home life Tish doesn’t want anyone to know about. This book shows you how letters can become confessionals, and it illustrates how recipients — imagined or real — become the people we trust, all because we made the choice to tell them something.
Readalikes: The Perks of Being A Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky and Feeling Sorry for Celia (2001) by Jaclyn Moriarty
Pretty Little Liars (2006-present) by Sara Shepard
I’m sure you’ve heard of this series. When a murdered girl seems to have turned up again in the form of anonymous letters, a group of former friends has to come together again to find out who is behind the letters and what secrets each one is hiding. Scandalous enough to be turned into a popular television series and more than 10 books, this series is somehow both the light and dark side of letters at the same time — light because the books and show are considered guilty pleasures, light reads that are a ton of fun, but also dark because there is nothing creepier than teen girls being stalked, threatened, and blackmailed.
Readalikes: The Liar Society (2011-present) by Lisa Roecker and Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (2003-2006) by Patricia C. Wrede
The Milk of Birds (2013) by Sylvia Whitman
Raise your hand if your teacher ever made you write letters to someone in another town or another country. This book takes a girl in Richmond, Virginia, whose mother signs her up for one of those cultural exchange penpalships that also financially supports a girl in a Sudanese refugee camp. At first reluctant to do so, K.C. begins to trust Nawra, the Sudanese girl, more and more, telling her about her life and trying to understand Nawra’s. And Nawra does the same, albeit through a friend who knows how to write (Nawra does not) and a translator (who turns the Arabic missives into English ones for K.C. to read). Like many other epistolary novels, letters in this book are a way to confess or confide in someone who can’t judge you because they don’t know you. Letters allow both K.C. and Nawra to reevaluate their lives, their perspectives, and their hardships, though some of the conclusions K.C. makes are rather predictable.
Readalike: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2008) by Valerie Zenatti
What are some of your favorite epistolary novels? What do letters do you for you?
– Hannah Gómez, currently reading Dualed by Elsie Chapman