There’s just something special about getting mail, isn’t there? No, I’m not talking about bills and credit card applications. I mean letters. Postcards. Party invitations. Birthday wishes. In this age of email and instant communication, it may seem old fashioned, but I think there’s still nothing quite like the thrill of opening your mailbox and finding an unexpected letter from a loved one. It’s almost as if the mailbox is magic sometimes. And probably to many children, it does seem magic. When you’re a kid, in among all that boring stuff for Mom and Dad, sometimes there’s something in there with just your name on it. Maybe it’s a letter from Grandma or a birthday card from a friend, or maybe, if you’re really lucky, a letter from Santa. So as we’re gearing up for Valentine’s Day, excitedly making and sending valentines and writing little love letters, here are a few picture book suggestions that help recreate that sense of joy of getting mail.
I grew up with The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters (Little, Brown and Co., 1986) by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This novelty book was so special to me because it was the first time I had ever seen a book with envelopes built right into the pages, so that I could actually pull out and unfold a letter to read it. Like most pop-up books, it may not be the most durable of book formats, but it certainly makes a special one-on-one sharing book. The Jolly Postman is a fun play on traditional fairy tales. The same mailman brings letters to Goldilocks, Cinderella and the witch from Hansel and Gretel. The Ahlbergs let you imagine what life would be like if these familiar characters’ lives extended past their stories and intertwined. The rhyming text playfully weaves the characters together as the mailman goes on his daily route, delivering a variety of letters, advertisements, postcards and invitations that (to the savvy reader) are chock-full of puns and fairy tale references.
Bunny Mail by Rosemary Wells has a similar format for the younger audience. With less elaborate letters (you lift the flap as if opening a card instead of taking letters out of envelopes) and a simple plot, this is perfect for 3-5 year olds. While Ruby is busy mailing invitations to her dolls and Grandma for her tea party, Max decides he wants to send a letter too. He really wants a new bike from Santa (even if it is July) but doesn’t know how to write. Max tries his best, but the mailman isn’t able to decipher Max’s writing and sends the letter to Grandma instead of Santa. Let me tell you, Max’s Grandma is awesome and I wish I had ten just like her. In a delightful mess of confusion, Max and Grandma send letters back and forth until she finally understands what he wants.
There’s probably nothing quite as exciting as a letter from Santa and Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien’s children were extremely lucky. For over twenty years, he wrote and illustrated elaborate letters from Father Christmas to his three children. In true Tolkien style, these were not just “Have you been a good boy this year?” letters, but mini adventures within a world of lovable characters, bumbling polar bears, and meddling goblins, complete with their own elaborate goblin language. The letters are funny, sweet, and entertaining and Tolkien spent a good deal of time handwriting and illustrating these letters each year. They have all been reproduced in an updated edition of Letters from Father Christmas (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and makes for an enjoyable read any time of the year.
In The Gardener (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) set during the depression era, Lydia Grace is sent away from her out-of-work parents in the country to stay with her Uncle Jim in the city until their economic situation got better. Like an epistolary novel, this picture book’s narrative is told completely through Lydia Grace’s letters home. Through them you see what she sees, but with the help of illustrations, see what she chooses not to write home as well. A story of transformation and hope, Lydia Grace brings color, joy and recovery not only to the dreary city and her uncle’s struggling bakery, but companionship, hope and love to her family during a hard time.
In Toot & Puddle, (Little, Brown and Co., 1997) Toot decides to go on a world-wide adventure, while Puddle stays at home. Toot sends Puddle a postcard each month from his exotic location and the postcard (in Toot’s handwriting) is reproduced on the bottom of the page. I discovered this book when I was away at college and my sister and I loved it so much that we started sending each other letters and postcards Toot & Puddle-style (I was Toot, she was Puds) during the time we were apart. It turns out that for us, sending quick notes (even if they’re just plain silly) really helped us stay close even when we were physically far apart.
For adults and teens, Griffin & Sabine (Chronicle Books, 1991) by Nick Bantock, offers all the joys of opening letters ala The Jolly Postman with an added sense of mystery, connection, and love. Griffin, an artist in London, receives a mysterious postcard from a stranger named Sabine living in Pacific Islands. Through their intense letter exchange of postcards and hand-written notes (complete with spelling errors and scratch-outs), they discover that they have a seemingly magical bond, one that frightens and yet thrills them. The art is absurd and fabulous with a story that will stick with you a long time.
So take a peek at someone else’s mail (in a book, of course!) and maybe you’ll be inspired to send someone special a little love letter for their own mailbox.