It begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more -- though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was -- lovely and amazing and deeply flawed -- can she begin to discover her own path in this stunning debut from Ava Dellaira, Love Letters to the Dead.
Everything Laurel knows about high school, she learned from her older sister, but after May's death, Laurel has to start freshman year on her own. After getting an assignment to write to someone who's died, Laurel keeps going, and the book is structured as a journal in letters to Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix, Judy Garland, and others. Laurel uses the letters to talk about both the past and the unfolding present, especially the friends she makes, who are also struggling with the problems that played a role in May's life and death. Debut author Dellaira gives Laurel a poet's eye: when she first makes eye contact with the boy she has a crush on, it feels like "fireflies lighting under my skin." Although Dellaria writes beautifully, the pervading melancholy feels one-note at times, and the letter format can get wearying, especially when Laurel tells the recipients about their own careers, the epistolary equivalent of expository dialogue. That said, Laurel and her friends' struggles and hard-won successes are poignant, and seeing Laurel begin to forgive herself and May is extremely moving. Ages 12 up.
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