Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2013 Contenders: Postcards from Pismo, by Michael Scotto

Almost as long as there have been novels, there have been epistolary novels. It's a form that's been used by everyone from Samuel Richardson to Mary Shelley, from C.S. Lewis to Lionel Shriver, and it can, in the right hands, bring intimacy to a story, call into question the reliability of any one interpretation, and bring a setting to life.

Although there are plenty of classic adult epistolaries, and even several definitive YA works in the form (e.g. Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster; Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; and, depending on how you think it should be filed, even Anne of Windy Poplars), there are far fewer for children that have had staying power. There's Dear Mr. Henshaw, which won the Newbery in 1984; Nothing But the Truth, which garnered Avi a Newbery Honor in 1992, and...probably some others, but none that come to mind, though Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson, has a chance to make that list in a few years. For whatever reason, there just aren't very many middle-grade epistolaries that have been given "classic" status.*

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some interesting ones being written, as this short list from NPL's Book Buddies indicates. And Postcards from Pismo, the second novel by Michael Scotto, is certainly a worthy addition to that list.

Postcards from Pismo is a monologic epistolary, meaning that we only get the letters and emails written by Felix Maldonado, the protagonist, while the precise contents of the responses he receives in return must be inferred. Felix's letters are addressed to Lt. Marcus Greene, an American soldier stationed in Afghanistan. His first letter is the result of a class project to send mail to the overseas troops, but Felix and Lt. Greene become ongoing pen pals and develop a close friendship. Felix looks to Lt. Greene for advice on subjects including dealing with school bullies; his concerns about his brother Quin, who has joined the National Guard; and how best to control his habit of worrying.

My favorite thing about Postcards is the way that it stays true to the viewpoint of its main character. Although the novel is set in the present day and deals with the war in Afghanistan, it's essentially apolitical; this is realistic, as few 10-year-old boys have nuanced political views, and the book avoids trying to shoehorn such views in. Also, on several occasions, Felix lacks the patience to wait for a response, and sends a flurry of correspondence. This rang true to me, as I remember having a hard time waiting for things when I was a 10-year-old boy myself. Felix always feels like a real person; I think the epistolary form helps, as it provides opportunities for Felix to drop in asides and personal details.

Although it's not a criterion for the Newbery, I do have to say that I'm not sold on the illustrations. The book contains a few of them, in the form of postcards and snapshots, and I think it would have been more effective to use actual photographs rather than black and white drawings.

I don't think Postcards from Pismo quite hits the heights of this year's top Newbery contenders -- the ending is a bit pat and predictable, and I'm not sure it takes full advantage of its coastal California setting. But it's genuinely engaging, and it's well worth a read.

Published by Midlandia / NNDS in May

*If you can think of any others, please mention them in the comments!


  1. Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse is one we use every year (as we have a year-long immigration unit in our fourth grade) and the kids always love it.

    1. Oooh...I haven't read that one. Thanks, and good call! I'll put it on my ever-growing list of things to read :D