Love Letters to the Dead
By Sandie Angulo Chen,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Heartbreaking but beautiful novel about a sister's grief.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Readers will learn about the lives of various dead figures, like why they were famous, what led to their deaths, and other important or trivial details.
Love Letters to the Dead stresses the importance of telling the truth, even if it's painful and damaging, and getting help, even if you think you can handle something by yourself. The story also advises against substance abuse (with the exception of cannabis, which is portrayed as a much safer drug). Laurel realizes that life isn't always what it's "supposed to be," but that the beauty is loving it for what it actually is: imperfect and occasionally painful but also joyful and worth the effort.
Positive Role Models
There aren't many role models in this book. Most of the teens are just trying to figure life out, and they sometimes make iffy choices. But Sky is admirable, because he doesn't want Laurel to keep making self-destructive choices, and he challenges her not to follow in her sister's footsteps.
Violence & Scariness
Discussions of an accident that could've been suicide, of abusive relationships, vicious slut shaming, and of child molestation. A character describes how he was kicked out of school for beating up a guy who was an abuser.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Mentions of straight and gay romance and kissing, as well as touching and passionate making out (but not actual sex). There are several references to a character's promiscuity. A young woman remembers being sexually molested while her sister was off having sex.
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Occasional but not overly frequent use of strong language like "f--k," "s--t," "a---hole," "bitch."
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Products & Purchases
References to album and song titles, movies, and books, like Nirvana/In Utero, Amy Winehouse/"Rehab," River Phoenix/Stand By Me, etc.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Teens drink, get drunk, smoke pot, cigarettes, and at parties take pills that are given to them under false pretenses.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Love Letters to the Dead is a mature coming-of-age novel about a high schooler mourning her sister's death. The epistolary novel is written as a series of letters to dead figures, from the "27 Club" of singers (Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, etc.) to pioneers, artists, and writers. As one would expect from a novel about grief, there are some heavy themes: death, suicide, abuse, sex and sexuality, and identity issues. The protagonist experiences her first love and sometimes makes questionable decisions about substance use. Teens ready to deal with tough issues will appreciate this novel and may even become curious about the musicians and artists addressed in the letters.
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What's the Story?
LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD is quite literally what the title connotes: a series of letters (each one is a chapter) written by high-schooler Laurel to dead famous figures. The first letter (to Kurt Cobain) starts off as a class assignment, but it quickly becomes a way for the teen to process her grief over her older sister May's death. Laurel, who has moved in with an aunt in order to attend a high school where no one knew her sister, tells people like Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix everything she doesn't feel comfortable saying in real life: about her new school, friends, and even Sky, the mysterious guy to whom she feels overwhelmingly drawn. As she writes down these truths, Laurel is finally able to confront what happened to Laurel, and to herself.
Is It Any Good?
Ava Dellaira's first novel is not an easy read, but it's worth the effort and the heartache. At first it seems as if Laurel is revealing more about the subjects of her letters (readers will learn a good bit about the dead figures) instead of her own pain. But that's by design, because everyone she addresses a letter to is a reflection of what she's going through -- the unending grief of losing her sister, the tingling excitement of falling for Sky, and the confusion of dealing with the guilt of her broken family. Laurel's turmoil is believably rendered; she's all over the place, like anyone her age would be with so much emotional baggage.
Love Letters to the Dead is a book that a parent and teen could read together, particularly if the family has experienced a loss or the parent remembers feeling a connection to iconic performers whose lives were cut short. It may take a while for some readers to get immersed in the prose if the framing device of the letters doesn't immediately grab you, but stick with it. Laurel's story is painful but powerful, and it will remind readers to find their voice, tell the truth, carry on, and -- to quote Nirvana -- "Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be, as a friend."
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about epistolary novels. What are the benefits and strengths of this style of narrative? Compare and contrast Love Letters to the Dead with other books, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, that use letters to tell the story.
Do you need to be familiar with "the dead" to whom Laurel addresses her letters to enjoy the book? Did the novel make you interested in learning more about or acquainting yourself with the works of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, etc.?
Talk about how grief and death are discussed/treated in the book. Why do you think Laurel harbors so much guilt about May's death? Do you think her grief seemed realistic? Why is it important for books about such tough subjects to exist?
- Author: Ava Dellaira
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date: April 1, 2014
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 14 - 18
- Number of pages: 323
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: July 12, 2017
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