The YA Books That Made Us Love, Fear, and Cry Over Pen Pals
No matter how far technology advances, even when we're someday beaming emoji conversations between our head-chips, we're always going to romanticize writing letters as the most intimate form of communication. It's also perhaps the most terrifying, because of how they allow us to communicate that which we can't say aloud: Letters are lifelines, confessions, olive branches. That's why we love epistolary novels: Even more than first-person narrative, they tap into the heart of human experience and the complex, messy relationships between two people struggling to put their thoughts down on paper.
As technology has made communication nearly as fast and immediate as human thought, you might assume that epistolary works—especially young adult books—would die out. But, to our delight, we've found that plenty of YA novels still utilize this framework, linking their characters through letters in a charmingly Luddite way.
These books tap into our mixed emotions around letter-writing and the pen pals or loved ones on the other side of the envelope. Read on for the stories that made us love, fear, and (in certain cases) cry over the act of writing letters.
Most people I talk to had crappy freshman-year roommates—no surprise when you're thrown together with strangers. But Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando's 2013 novel Roomies imagines a more encouraging transition into college, by mapping the growing friendship between two roommates-to-be during their pre-frosh summer.
Though Ebb and Lo's email correspondence almost ends before it begins thanks to several misunderstandings, their rocky back-and-forth smooths out into a genuine friendship as each realizes that this stranger living on the opposite coast makes a better listener than her family or friends. However, the road to cohabitation is realistically awkward, with each girl making assumptions about the other based on her background (San Francisco vs. New Jersey), and several coincidences and cover-ups contriving to break apart their fragile trust.
For all of us who grew up reading Ann M. Martin and Paula Danziger's P.S. Longer Letter Later, Roomies is the next logical progression. It's the soulmate story we all wish we had had before starting the already terrifying experience of college.
I will always remember The Year of Secret Assignments as one of the most insidious YA novels I've ever read. The thing is, Jaclyn Moriarty's 2004 book starts out seeming bright and sunny: Three girls get matched up with three boy pen pals at a neighboring school! What kinds of shenanigans will abound!
But even as two of the three duos banter and engineer silly pranks between their schools, it's the story of Cassie and her pen pal Matthew that sticks with me. He sends her vicious threats—"I'll break your fingers one by one"—yet rather than report him, she dumbly keeps writing. When he suddenly turns nice, you know that you can't trust it. Lo and behold, when they do meet in-person, he publicly humiliates her.
All I can remember is utter shock at this reveal. The added bombshell that "Matthew" is a fake identity—yep, it's a case of catfishing in the early-'00s—only adds to articulating our every fear about pen pals. For someone to get that close to another person, to know how to first make her trust him, then how to undo her in one conversation… it's everything our parents warned us against. I still get shivers when I think about this book.
Writing letters is cathartic, but I bet you never reckoned on just how effective of a coping mechanism they can be. Take, for instance, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Through a series of letters to an unknown recipient, Charlie shares his misfit woes and how he finds his tribe in Patrick and Sam.
But not even riding through tunnels and belting out classic songs with his new friends, or writing these daily letters, can keep the memories at bay. In fact, they probably contribute to Charlie unlocking what he's been repressing: the memories of abuse by his beloved aunt Helen, who has since died in a car crash. This reveal shocks readers in a one-two punch, along with the realization that Charlie is just writing letters into the void. Even as he ends the book on a positive note, it gives bittersweet meaning to his favorite notion of "feeling infinite."
Debut author Ava Dellaira has cited Chbosky among her major influences, and no surprise: In Love Letters to the Dead, a school assignment has teenager Laurel choosing several unlikely recipients for her correspondences—Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger. These celebrities all died far too young, under mysterious and tragic circumstances… just like her sister, May. Like Charlie, Laurel writes letters to those who can never answer; while this knowledge may make you choke up once again, it's also clear how much the letters help Laurel work through May's death.
And, finally, the recent epistolary YA novel that had me crying on the subway twice—once in the middle, and once at the end: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. As awkward, tragically misunderstood high schooler Leonard approaches what is to be his last day alive—bringing a gun to school to kill his best friend and turn it on himself—his internal monologue is interspersed with letters addressed to him, from various people in his future: namely, his wife and daughter at Outpost 37, a lighthouse shelter in a post-apocalyptic, partially drowned world.
While this device is at first jarring, it soon becomes clear that Leonard has been grudgingly participating in a school assignment: to write letters to himself from an imagined future, to help him cope with the present. Even though the characters are less real than the ugly people who have ignored, maligned, and betrayed him in real life, they're more substantial by far. The book is a bittersweet celebration of the power of letters—and, more importantly, the people behind them, who pour their frustrations, fears, and love into the oldest form of communication.
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