Reading Challenge Readalouds: Great Epistolary Novels

Are you participating in the 2018 Reading Challenge? Someone suggested on Facebook that it would be fun to have a list of recommendations for some of the different categories, so I thought I would occasionally dedicate a Readaloud of the Week post to some ideas for a Reading Challenge category. This week, I am focusing on one of my very favorite things: novels written in letters. I’ve tried to note approximate-ish reading levels, but if you’re reading these out loud, that’s probably less important.

 

UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER by Kelly Jones

Sophie’s not super-excited to pack up and move from Los Angeles to the farm her family inherited from her late uncle, but her interest is piqued when she discovers a very unusual chicken in the backyard. Through her correspondence with Agnes at Redwood Farm Supply, Sophie discovers that her late Uncle Jim had a fondness for chickens with unusual abilities and decides that maybe she’ll follow in his poultry-raising footsteps. Told through letters — to Agnes, but also to her late and beloved abuela, her late uncle (she’s not expecting to hear back from him, of course), and her friends in L.A. who never seem to write back — this is a delightfully Roald Dahl-ish book with a charming heroine and a fun story. (Middle grades)


DADDY-LONG-LEGS by Jean Webster

This is an old-fashioned book starring a plucky orphan who goes off to college and ends up getting married at the end, so if that’s not your family’s jam, feel free to skip ahead. Jerusha Abbott has grown up in an orphan asylum, and when a mysterious benefactor pays to send her off to college — so long as she promises to keep him apprised of her academic progress through monthly letters. Jerusha — now nicknamed Judy — blooms at school and in her increasingly confident letters. Always clever and spunky, now she really has a chance to shine. It’s a pleasure to read as she discovers her sense of self, finds new friends, and has a really lovely adventure for the first time in her life. (Middle grades/Young adult)


DEAR MR. HENSHAW by Beverly Cleary

Sixth grader Leigh Botts writes his favorite author for a school assignment, but when Mr. Henshaw writes back, Leigh is inspired to write many more letters, discovering that writing gives him a place to deal with his feelings about being bullied at lunchtime, dealing with his parents’ separation, and finding a place for himself in a new town. Cleary is pitch-perfect here, showing us Leigh’s emotional growth without resolving everything with a neat bow. (Middle grades)


ABSOLUTELY NORMAL CHAOS by Sharon Creech

Mary Lou’s summer homework is to read The Odyssey and keep a journal. She’s not particularly thrilled about either one but finds herself enjoying both more than she suspected, as her journal gives her a place to puzzle through the summer’s mysteries: her best friend’s brain-sucking crush on an older boy, a friendship of her own with a cute boy from her class, and the appearance of her impossible-to-define cousin Carl Ray, who comes with a mystery of his own. (Middle grades)


THE YEAR OF SECRET ASSIGNMENTS by Jaclyn Moriarty

Suzanne has often lamented Moriarty’s lack of U.S. popularity since her YA novels are so much fun to read, and this book of hers is chock full of letter-writing goodness. Emily, Lydia, and Cassie have signed up for a pen pal program with boys who attend their town’s rival high school, a project that kicks off a year of pranks, secrets, dares, and discoveries. (Young adult)


LETTERS FROM CAMP and REGARDING THE FOUNTAIN: A TALE, IN LETTERS, OF LIARS AND LEAKS by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise 

These two books come from the same author-illustrator team and use the same epistolary technique to tell their stories, so I am lumping them together. In Letters from Camp, campers at a camp for squabbling siblings discover that the famous siblings in charge may be hiding something. In Regarding the Fountain, a middle school’s effort to commission a new drinking fountain when the old one cracks leads to unexpected drama. In both, hilarity frequently ensues. (Elementary)


ELLA MINNOW PEA by Mark Dunn

This one’s an epistolary novel and a lipogram, you guys! If you are a fellow word nerd, you will adore this, so I am recommending it in this list even though it actually gets kind of hard to read aloud in places — mostly because the fictional South Carolina town in which it is set starts banning letters of the alphabet as they fall of the aging statue of their town’s namesake, (also fictional) pangram coiner Nevin Nollop. In fact, the town’s language totalitarianism pushes the limits of reason, and it’s up to young Ella to fight for freedom of speech. (Young adult)


THE JOLLY POSTMAN by Janet Ahlberg, illustrated by Allan Ahlberg

You actually get to open the letters and take them out of their envelopes when you’re reading this playful picture book, which follows a postman as he delivers the mail to the fairy tale characters along his route. (Elementary)


LETTERS OF A WOMAN HOMESTEADER by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

These letters aren’t fictional, but they read like a novel: In 1909, widowed Elinore Pruitt Stewart and her young daughter set off for Wyoming to stake their claim on a ranch. In her chatty letters back to an old friend in Denver, Pruitt Stewart recounts her adventures camping out in the wild, planning a spontaneous wedding for a fellow settler who hasn’t seen his bride-to-be for a quarter of a century, delivering babies for her neighbors and her cows, cooking campfire breakfasts, and always taking the time to pause and soak in the magic of landscape around her. She’s plucky and positive and perpetually interested in everything around her. (She’s also a Southern woman in 1909, so be prepared for some very apparent racism to casually pop up.) (Young adult)


SORCERY AND CECELIA by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

We have already raved about this book so many times, but the letters cousins Kate and Cecelia write each other during Kate’s first London season are too delightful not to include in this list. Kate and Cecelia inhabit a Jane Austen-ish England, with gowns, balls, and plenty of complicated social land mines to navigate — and, as it happens, there’s also magic. As Kate and Cecelia get pulled into separate magical conspiracies, they keep each other updated with action-packed letters — only to realize that their separate adventures may actually be connected after all. (Young adult)


CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman

It’s problematic, of course, to pretend that we can understand what might have gone on in the head 14th century girl, but Cushman makes a solid effort here, and this novel — which takes the form of Catherine’s journal — paints a fascinating (and well researched) picture of medieval life. Catherine doesn’t have a lot of agency: She’s going to have to do what her father says, including marrying the man he’s picked out for her, however much she might rebel against the idea in her diary. That rebelling feels a little anachronistic, but I’m not sure a middle grades reader would be able to identify with Catherine at all without it so I think it’s an understandable conceit. If you’re studying the Middle Ages any time soon, you will definitely want to have this one on your list. (Middle grades)


THE IDES OF MARCH by Thornton Wilder

If you are interested in Roman history, you will be over the moon to discover this fictional collection of letters set during the end of Julius Caesar’s life. (A life, you remember, that will be ended by assassination in the Roman Senate on the Ides of March.) The letters, from Caesar, his friends, his family, his Egyptian mistress Cleopatra, his friends, and his enemies, paint a picture of Rome on the brink of civil war. The details of everyday life in ancient Rome are fascinating. And since we know where all of this is leading, there’s a sense of inevitability as Caesar alternately pushes his advantage and tries to compromise in the name of peace. Definitely recommended for high school ancient history. (Young adult)


ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS by L.M. Montgomery

This one isn’t a full epistolary novel — there are narrative sections, too — but Anne’s adventures teaching at a girls’ school in a very clannish town are so funny and charming that if you’re an Anne of Green Gables fan, you won’t want to miss them. (Middle grades/Young adult)