Epistolary novels are books in which the characters communicate in writing such as letters or notes. More recently, electronic communications such as e-mails or blog posts have become popular. This form of writing lends authenticity to the characters by giving the reader an intimate look at their thoughts and feelings.
Letters from the Corrugated Castle by Joan W. Blos November 29, 2010
The year is 1850 and Eldora has just moved across the country with her aunt and uncle in the California Gold Rush. What better way to keep in touch than writing letters? Eldora writes to her cousin and friend, Sallie, about their journey, their new home, and her neighbors. Then Eldora gets a letter of her own- from her mother who was presumed to be dead. Eldora tries to adjust to her new family life while teaching English to the neighbor children and developing a friendship with Luke, a boy from the mining camps.
This historical fiction novel is well-suited for younger teens. The simple language, larger font, and the letters written between the characters make it a fast, easy read. Readers learn that even during an era very different from now, teens and parents still fought and friends still came and went.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky November 28, 2010
Charlie is soon to be sixteen years old, living with his quiet mother, protective father, and teenage sister. His brother plays football at Penn State. Charlie is writing letters to an unknown recipient about the significant parts of his life; the extra books his English teacher, Bill, assigns him, his relationship with his always annoyed sister, and his first real friends, Patrick and Sam, who open his eyes to the world. Charlie writes about his experiences with doctors after his aunt Helen died, his first experience with drugs, being part of a social group, and the things he does for his sister when she needs him the most. He realizes the perks of being a wallflower are to listen and observe quietly to figure out one’s place in the world.
Charlie’s story, told through anonymous letters, is sweet, endearing, painful, and sad. Charlie is a bit more introspective and off-base than just a shy high schooler, but his observances about life were thought-provoking and kept the reader wanting more.
Though the book is a series of letters, it read more like a diary. It was a unique premise that gave the reader an intimate look at Charlie’s thoughts, joys, and pain.
Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli November 18, 2010
The second book in a series about Stargirl Caraway, Love, Stargirl is the world’s longest letter to Stargirl’s former (and maybe future?) boyfriend, Leo. Stargirl tells Leo about everything in her new home- finding a field to watch the sun rise, meditating on picnic tables in the park, hanging out with her five-year-old best friend, Dootsie, and her agoraphobic neighbor, Betty Lou, developing a small crush on the town Romeo, Perry, becoming a mentor for tomboy, Alvina, and eating donuts at Margie’s shop. What Stargirl doesn’t realize is although she can’t reach her beloved Leo, she reaches many others along the way.
Love, Stargirl was both quirky and endearing. I found Stargirl’s homeschool experience to be unrealistic (writing poems about her adventures is the extent of her schooling), but the characters in the story were likable and well-rounded.
Spinelli uses the epistolary format well; Stargirl’s thoughts are intermixed with dialogue and plot. Not every moment is accounted for; after a gap in time, Stargirl will often reflect on what happened during that time. Overall, a good read.
Best Friends Forever: A World War II Scrapbook by Beverly Patt November 16, 2010
Louise and Dottie are best friends, but their friendship is interrupted in April of 1942. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into the war, Dottie and her family, who are of Japanese descent, are taken with many other Japanese American families to an internment camp. Louise begins a scrapbook with newspaper articles, pictures, mementos, and letters between Dottie and her for Dottie to see upon her return to Bainbridge Island, Washington.
This is a unique presentation of the stories of two 14-year-old girls during World War II. The epistolary format grabs the readers’ attention and helps them learn about the history of this era in an interesting way.
One brown paper wrapped shoebox comes in the mail. Seven cassette tapes wrapped in bubble wrap inside. Thirteen numbers painted on the tapes. Eleven words into the first tape turn Clay Jensen’s world upside down.
Hannah Baker killed herself, but not before recording the thirteen reasons that drove her to her decision. The tapes are sent, one by one, to the thirteen people that affected her in her final months. Follow Clay as he listens to Hannah’s final words and learns about the horrifying thirteen reasons why she is gone.
This was a powerful story about how one’s actions and inaction can profoundly affect the lives of others. Hannah’s voice is sometimes intensely sad, other times chillingly calm. Her spoken words are in italics and Clay’s thoughts are in regular type, allowing the reader to differentiate between the two. The epistolary format gives the reader an intimate look at the characters’ thoughts, hopes, and fears.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang November 12, 2010
Have you ever wished you were someone else? Someone better looking, more popular, someone who just fits in? The Monkey King can relate; he was humiliated when he was not let into a party just because he was a monkey. Jin Wang can relate; he is one of the only Chinese kids at his school and his dream girl has eyes for a guy with blonde hair. Danny can relate; his cousin visits from China every year just to embarrass him at school with his weird accent and gross food. The stories of all three outcasts are in this graphic novel. See what happens when they try to deny who they are and try to be just like everyone else.
Looking for his “Great Perhaps,” Miles convinces his parents let him go to boarding school in Alabama. Upon arrival, he meets his roommate known as The Colonel and the infamous Alaska Young. Alaska is moody, funny, confident, and HOT. Miles is immediately both intimidated and smitten. Chapter titles are in the form of a countdown: one hundred twenty-two days before, forty-seven days before, the last day, leading to a climax that will leave readers stunned.
You will be drawn into the smoky labyrinth with this dysfunctional group and want to be friends with them as they sneak around campus, get kicked out of basketball games, and play the greatest prank in Culver Creek history.
Ella Minnow Pea lives on Nollop, an island off the coast of South Carolina. The island is named for Nevin Nollop, author of the pangram, or sentence composed of all of the letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” When the letters of the Nollop’s legendary pangram begin falling from his commemorative statue, the island’s High Council takes it as a sign from Mr. Nollop from beyond the grave and outlaws written and verbal use of the letters. As more and more of the townspeople are banished for using the illicit letters, an outsider comes to the rescue with a proposal; if they are able to come up with an even shorter pangram, the High Council will restore use of the full alphabet. Before long, though, the task to save the town falls to Ella alone. Will she be able to top Nollop and save the town from complete exodus?
This was a very clever commentary on censorship and abuse of power. It was interesting how many of the townspeople, despite their love of language and words, unquestioningly followed the High Council’s ridiculous orders and quickly sold out their friends and neighbors who violated those orders.
The epistolary format was essential to this novel. The letters at the beginning were filled with rich language but deteriorated with the loss of the alphabet. Near the end, the letters were almost nonsensical, composed of creatively spelled words to get the point across without violating the rules.
Punkzilla by Adam Rapp November 11, 2010
Jamie, known as Punkzilla to his friends, has been on the go for awhile. His parents sent him to Buckner military academy only to have him go AWOL and run away to Portland, Oregon (NOT Portland, Maine). He leaves Portland on a desperate journey to see his brother, P, in Memphis, Tennessee before he dies of cancer. Along the way, Punkzilla gets jumped, kicked out of cars, befriended, and abandoned by a long list of interesting characters. Jamie keeps track of all the people he meets and his experiences with them in letters to P; his notebook is full of truth, even if his words aren’t. Will P get to read the letters before it’s too late?
Punkzilla can be defined as gritty fiction, filled with controversial language, drug use, and sexual situations. Jamie’s journey is filled with danger but the situations he encounters, although at times shocking and sad, are not unbelievable.
The epistolary format is referred to in other reviews as “stream-of-consciousness narrative.” Jamie’s letters are long, rambling, filled with expletives, and lacking in punctuation, which adds to its authenticity as the character is a 14-year-old essentially living on the streets. Once again, I prefer the epistolary format as it allows Jamie’s voice to come through without getting bogged down with dialog and plot details.