Are you a high school English teacher or librarian looking for an epistolary novel? These two might fit the bill!
What IS an Epistolary Novel?
We call a book written as a series of letters an epistolary novel. Some of my favorite classic epistolary novels include Dear Enemy and Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. These books, along with Gilead (another classic), have one main author of the letters. Another type of epistolary novel involves multiple authors of the letters which make up the bulk of the story. One of my favorite historical inspirational examples of this style is Things We Didn’t Say.
I needed an epistolary novel to read out loud to my high school English students (yes, I read out loud to teenagers and they follow along in their copy of the book). Although I loved all of the books I mentioned above, the authors probably didn’t have high school students as their target audience.
My high school students’ reading levels range anywhere from third to 12th grade, making it difficult to find an epistolary novel they would all enjoy and understand. While the older students with better reading levels would have done fine with Gilead, the younger students with lower reading levels would have struggled.
An Epistolary Novel for Those Who Love Sly Humor
I found two gems, each written in a slightly different epistolary novel style. The first, Ella Minnow Pea caught my fancy because of the title. Who names their child “Ella Minnow Pea?” Probably a geeky word nerd like myself.
“Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel.” (from Amazon).
While I adored this book, and my older students had fun reading it, those at the lower reading levels with less interest in geeky word plays thought it was just o.k. The rich vocabulary the characters turn to as more and more letters get eliminated from their island makes a dictionary necessary for lower readers. A great alternative to A Brave New World or 1984 for history or government teachers wanting to teach kids about totalitarianism.
Written by Mark Dunn, published in 2002 by Anchor Books, Ella Minnow Pea has 208 pages and a fairly high reading level. You don’t have to be a high school student to enjoy this book.
An Unforgettable Epistolary Novel for Older Readers
The second book, This Light Between Us: A Novel of World War II, is a must-read for everyone. Most of the first part of the story is told through letters between a Japanese-American boy in Washington State and a French Jewish girl living in Paris. As the story progresses, it contains fewer letters and more third-person narratives.
“In 1935, ten-year-old Alex Maki from Bainbridge Island, Washington is disgusted when he’s forced to become pen pals with Charlie Lévy of Paris, France―a girl. He thought she was a boy. In spite of Alex’s reluctance, their letters continue to fly across the Atlantic―and along with them, the shared hopes and dreams of friendship. Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the growing Nazi persecution of Jews force them to confront the darkest aspects of human nature.
“From the desolation of an internment camp on the plains of Manzanar to the horrors of Auschwitz and the devastation of European battlefields, the only thing they can hold onto are the memories of their letters. But nothing can dispel the light between them.” (from Amazon).
Why I Loved This Book
Andrew Fukuda brings to light the indignities, hardships, and heroism of Japanese-Americans during World War II in ways that will make you think (and weep). My students (9th-12th graders) universally adored this story. They told their friends about the book and I had a difficult time keeping a copy on the shelf.
Fukuda doesn’t pull any punches with the realities of war, so teachers and librarians beware. Since I read it with the class, we could discuss the brutality of war and the internment camps. We had lively and sobering class discussions about man’s inhumanity to man, racism, prejudice, and how they have experienced similar indignities. I teach at a school for Native Americans.
Written by Andrew Fukuda, published by Tor for Teen in 2021, students will rush through the 384 pages. Fukuda also uses elements of magical realism. Keep boxes of tissue handy. The audio recording is also superb.