Though the traditional definition of an epistolary is a novel defined as “a novel written in the form of a series of letters,” contemporary epistolary ya novels cleverly incorporate all kinds of modern “letters.” Whether you’re checking your email, rereading your latest text conversations, or scrolling through your social media updates—this writing all makes up the twenty-first century correspondence. The best epistolary YA novels are quick reads, often funny, and so relatable. Here are five of my all-time favorite epistolary young adult novels.
Illuminae is the quickest 600-page novel you’ll ever read. The YA dream team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff have graced us with two novels of their Illuminae Files series so far with the third scheduled to publish in March 2018. These exhilarating science fiction space opera novels are written in the epistolary genre and incorporate such creative use of futuristic communication like “hacked documents” – emails, IMs, official documents, medical reports, and pages that are just annotated drawings of constellations. That Kaufman and Kristoff are able to manipulate their story to perfectly capture an interstellar conflict, life on board a space fleet, and the will-they-won’t-they romance between two frenemies speaks to the flexibility of the epistolary format. In the Illuminae series, we may be a millenia away from handwritten letters, but there is just as much to sift through in this fun, daring, and totally binge worthy epistolary young adult novels series.
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won not just the National Book Award and several honors, but also the hearts and minds of every reader who fell in love with Junior, the diarist penning the novel’s humorous and heartbreaking journals. Junior gets tapped to go to a better high school, one off the Spokane Indian Reservation. While he leaves his friends and family behind, Junior tries to find his place in his new school, where he sticks out as different from his mostly white and affluent classmates. Junior records his experiences with friendship, family, and basketball in his diary and accompanies them with illustrations (by cartoonist Ellen Forney). Junior’s honest confessions bring his challenge to assimilate while not completely abandoning his life on the reservation vividly to life.
Jenny Han’s flirty, breezy To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before stars Lara Jean Song, who best works through her romantic feelings through writing. Specifically, in the five detailed, intimate letters to each of the five crushes she’s had. These letters are just for Lara Jean’s eyes and are kept stashed in a hat box in her room—until someone mails them to the men they were addressed. Suddenly, Lara Jean finds she has to explain and even defend her thoughts and feelings, an embarrassing task that might actually reveal mutual love and attraction after all. This novel blends letters with prose and kicks off a series of three epistolary young adult novels. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if confessional emails you wrote to someone were somehow sent, Lara Jean’s story will help answer that question.
And then there’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which completely breaks the mold of everything ever. Author Ransom Riggs used a bunch of creepy and eerie old vintage photographs to create a truly innovative novel blending traditional text with pictures you can’t look away from, an inventive new take on epistolary young adult novels. The book chronicles sixteen-year-old Jacob’s quest to find out whether his grandfather’s stories of a magic “home for peculiar children” really did exist. After seeing alarming pictures that depict seemingly impossible scenes, Jacob travels to a small coastal island off Wales seeking answers. Riggs’ series displays his immense creativity to invent a story that blends many genres with his horror-science-fiction-historical-fantasy-mystery novel. After you tear through the first book, devour the two sequels and check out the film adaptation.
Any list of YA epistolary novels would be incomplete without Stephen Chobsky’s cult classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower. First published in 1999 and set in the 1990s Pennsylvania suburbs, this novel was at the forefront of modern young adult fiction and remains influential to this day. We don’t quite know why our narrator, Charlie, chooses to write letters addressed to an unnamed “Friend,” whose identity is never revealed, but his correspondence provides a deep look inside the life and mind of this “wallflower” as he makes new misfit but hopelessly cool friends. Some of Charlie’s letters are very brief, just a paragraph or two updating mundane parts of his new life in high school, but many more are painstakingly detailed records of his feelings for his new friend, the unattainable Sam, as well as Charlie’s grief over the loss of his friend and aunt. The Perks of Being a Wallflower uses the epistolary form to invite readers into Charlie’s world, mind, and heart. His dedication to writing displays the potential the epistolary form has to create a visceral emotional experience in the intimate space between two pen pals.
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