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Friday 7 February 2020

An Epistolary Collection

This week Felicity Sly shares her passion for letters, letter writing and stories told through letters. A post that celebrates past gems and also introduces some different titles that reflect the power of this format to speak to readers at a personal level.

What a gem of a word is epistolary, and it describes one of my favourite genres of writing…letters!

Letters of Note
Having been gifted a book voucher for one of those ‘decade’ birthdays, I wanted to buy a ‘keeper’ for my bookshelf. I actually got two keepers: Letters of Note and More Letters of Note; subtitled Correspondence deserving of a wider audience (compiled by Shaun Usher). I find reading letters a fascinating way to spend some time. The first collection has a letter from Roald Dahl to seven year-old Amy Corcoran (Feb 10, 1989) thanking her for sending him a dream in a bottle. Amy was ‘…the first person in the world who has sent me one of these…Tonight I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child’ (p51). This same collection has a letter from Charles M Schulz to Elizabeth Swaim (Jan 5, 1955). Elizabeth (age not specified) wrote asking that the new and obnoxious character, Charlotte Braun, be retired from the Peanuts comic strip. Schulz responded that he would ‘eventually discard her  and ‘that you and your friends will have the death of an innocent child on your conscience. Are you prepared to accept such responsibility?’ (p99) This letter contained a visual demonstration of this responsibility!

I then started remembering all the wonderful children’s books using letters as a device: JRR Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters is an annual favourite read (as mentioned in Janet’s December blog). I cannot recall how many times the various The Jolly Postman (Janet & Allan Ahlberg) titles were read at bedtime in our house. In The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt) the crayons leave letters for Duncan explaining why they have quit the crayon box. Letters from Felix: a little rabbit on a world tour (Annette Langen) inspired a television series and many children’s lost toys have had adventures whilst they found their way home (or not).

There are also many books for older readers which are epistolic. A gem of a book I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith of 101 Dalmatians fame) is in journal format, which feels like reading a letter. The interesting aspect of this book is that if you try to tell someone the storyline, it seems banal. Yet, it is a truly captivating read. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) is a coming of age novel which has been made into a feature film (2012). Other titles worthy of a read and reread are Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh), Go Ask Alice (Anonymous), The Adrian Mole Diaries (Sue Townsend) and Letters from the Inside (John Marsden)

Titles for more experienced readers include Dracula (Bram Stoker); Persuasion (Jane Austen) and 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff). But a title I really need to revisit after reading a review is Daddy-Long-Legs (Jean Webster). On reading this as a teenager, it seemed a very innocent story…but in the light of the modern world I may revise my opinion.
Do you have favourite epistolic books? Please share their titles…I love a reading recommendation.

Felicity Sly is a teacher-librarian at Don College in Devonport, Tasmania and CBCA Treasurer.

Editor's Note: Wow, this post has really got me thinking about some great stories told with letters. All-time favourites of mine are Penny Pollard's Letters (Robin Klein) and an absolute gem is Emily Gravett's interactive Meerkat Mail which includes postcards home.

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