The letter. It’s a funny, glorious thing. The most vivid example I can think of in literature, straight away, is the letters Celie sends in the Colour Purple. Vivd, poignant, and heart-searingly true, her letters scar and heal – often both in the same paragraph.
Children’s literature, and I apologise for the sweeping generalisation, relies much less on the letter than it used to. Part of this is sociological – the rise, and rise of email / BBM / IM etc – and part of this is simply that stories have changed. I can’t remember the last time I read a contemporary novel (without a historical slant!) that used letters as part of the narrative. Books reflect our world. And if the letter is disappearing, rightly or wrongly, then literature will reflect this. However, saying this, here’s an AMAZING ist which is full of suggestions of titles – and it’s one that’s making me think that maybe my previous statement is incorrect! One to ponder 😉
One contemporary series which does feature letter writing heavily is Harry Potter – and there’s something genuinely wondrous about receiving your invitation to Hogwarts – and something fabulously horrific about receiving a Howler. I think Rowling gets away with it precisely because of her use of magic. In fact it’s the very ‘magical’ nature of Harry’s letter (both the magic of the novelty, and the magic of the persistence!) that propels the plot substantially at the start of Philosophers Stone. To be honest, there’s a thesis in this paragraph just waiting to get out!
Angela Brazil was a mean one for her letters. I lose track of the amount of times I’ve read about one of her characters discovering A Vitally Important Letter just when all hope seems lost. It’s a trope that borders repeatedly on parody (“And Jimminy, I do love Miss Brazil, but she is so very easy to parody” expostulated Diana blousily) and one that seems just a little too convenient.
Another glorious, glorious book that centres around letters – the giving and receiving of them – is the Jolly Postman by Alan Ahlberg. I utterly adore this book. It’s full of levels, nuances, light, shade, and beautiful talent at each and every page. It’s one of those that reward exploring – and I urge you to do so if you’ve not experienced it already! (And, there’s an adorable Christmas themed version, hint, hint).
Letters are fabulous, and I think their novelty is making them more precious. I like letters. I like their tangibility, and I like their immediacy, and sometimes I like feeling like I’m thirteen again and scrawling a note to my best friend. I like the unfolding, the holding, and the feeling that somebody took a moment out to write this. I even like the sound a pen makes when it scratches on the paper. I like the feeling of creation, I like how the paper changes and I like the permanency of the words.