The best epistolary books written from the gut

Who am I?

As long as I can remember, I wrote letters. I still have an ongoing stamp to envelope relationship with a bud I met in Australia in the 80s. Sending postcards also became a thing for me, too. As a reader and writer, I love tight, intimate, highly personal narratives where the characters aren’t on paper but in your head. I’ve been a social worker for more than thirty years, so emotional vulnerability is my jam. I gravitate towards quick, easily digestible lengths of many epistolary forms, whether written in a diary, letter, journal, email, text, video, or combinations. The protagonist in my latest novel, Letters From Johnny, writes to legendary Toronto Maple Leafs Captain - Dave Keon - to work out his feelings.

I wrote...

Letters from Johnny

By Wayne Ng,

Book cover of Letters from Johnny

What is my book about?

Eleven-year-old Johnny tries to make sense of a murder, an absent father, and the FLQ Crisis through heart and humor-filled letters to hockey legend Dave Keon.

Dripping with nostalgia and awash with humor, Letters From Johnny is set in 1970’s Toronto through the eyes of mischievous Johnny Wong, a lonely boy who tries to stickhandle a neighborhood of immigrants and draft dodgers. Johnny’s world unravels after a murder, a betrayal, and the unexpected emergence of a family member, all this as he tries to make sense of the FLQ crisis. His only solaces are letters to a pen pal, then to Dave Keon, captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The books I picked & why

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This Is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone,

Book cover of This Is How You Lose the Time War

Why this book?

I am loathed to say, I had to put this book down at first. The writing was there, but it was a confusing mash-up of–I don’t even know how to describe it: post-apocalyptic, post-gender, romance-spy thriller, time-warping science fantasy? Usually too convoluted for me. But that writing…it was so poetic and eloquent that I gave it another go and was rewarded for it. Told from dual perspectives, two spies out to destroy one another in rotating dimensions, taunt, tease then fall in love with one another by leaving the most undiscoverable letters, letters so deep in wanting and loneliness that their pain becomes ours. This quick, but rich read ends as a tour de force and a hallmark of team writing.  

Dear Rachel Maddow

By Adrienne Kisner,

Book cover of Dear Rachel Maddow

Why this book?

This is a stellar example of YA pushing boundaries with a simple twist to epistolary devices. The protagonist Brynn, seeks answers and a place to vent through letters to Rachel Maddow. While this starts off as an assignment, the book’s hilarity is immediate, and her vulnerability and voice are quickly established. At times raw and edgy (trigger warnings of family violence and homophobia), Kisner morphs this coming of age story into several directions, not the least of which are a treatise on political representation, class, and diversity. Queer and teens with disabilities will find ample representation and prominence. 

Dear Martin

By Nic Stone,

Book cover of Dear Martin

Why this book?

This racial identity awakening book reminds me of The Hate U Give.

Justyce McAllister is going places as a rare student who is Black in a very white thinking and acting milieu. He is victimized by police brutality and racism and slowly roused to the wider, more complex world around him. He tries to channel Dr. Martin Luther King by writing to him.

The book’s strength is in how Nic Stone captures the voice of Justyce and his cohort. Stone nails teen angst, confusion, and anger while simultaneously stirring readers, especially those on the pathway to ‘wokeness’.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

By Stephen Chbosky,

Book cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Why this book?

This is the only title I’ve selected that was written pre-social media. I say this because this is one of the forerunners of a highly intimate, tell-all, the hell with any personal boundaries kind of story that is almost essential among consumers of mass, social media. Charlie, our passive, wallflower hero writes to an unknown recipient. He reveals a precarious balance of trying to live and run from his life, a familiar anthem of teendom, which includes first dates, family dramas, drugs, friends, and mental health. A lot has happened since and because of Wallflower, but this is a good marker of when YA epistolary made a significant turn.

The Martian

By Andy Weir,

Book cover of The Martian

Why this book?

You’ve probably seen this much-loved film adaptation of an astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars. What you don’t get in the film is the protagonist chronicling each and every move and thought into a series of videos. These show off his ingenuity and resourcefulness as he tries to make air, food, survive dust storms, and a whole whack of life-threatening stuff. Watney is a wall of American can-do and armor, a humble hero. He doesn’t emotionally bleed out helplessness and abandonment like the other epistolary titles mentioned, but it’s a highly entertaining page-turner.

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