Dear Max: Who Doesn’t Love to Read Other People’s Mail?

There are at least three things I love about Dear Max, by Sally Grindley.

1.  First and foremost, because I’m a teacher and all, I love that the format sucks readers right into the book. Dear Max is a story  told entirely in letters between Max (almost ten) and his favorite author, D.J. Lucas.  Who doesn’t love to read other people’s mail?  Max writes a fan letter, D.J. writes back, and a friendship begins. Max and D.J.’s letters are short, funny, honest, and touching in a way that makes the need for further narrative superfluous.  For kids, the short and funny thing can lead to a great sense of accomplishment.  Just today I used Dear Max with a reluctant reader I tutor.  He didn’t really want to read it, but in 45 minutes he’d read me 35 pages!  That’s great for reading self-esteem.  As for the honest and touching business, well, that’s a bonus for us grown-ups.

2.  This book nurtures a love for writing stories and is chockfull of great pointers for fledgling authors.  The relationship between Max and D.J. gains momentum when Max, duly inspired by D.J.’s myriad bestsellers, decides to write a story and asks for her help.  D.J. is under deadline herself, and invites Max to write his story while she writes her new book.  I love when D.J. admits she often spends hours staring at the white page and that her ideas take quite some time to “brew.”  The story Max writes about Grizzle, a bear too small to catch fish like he’s supposed to, and Chomp, the crocodile that bullies him, mirrors Max’s own struggles in school.  Max is small and bullied by a thug named Hugo Broadbent– nicknamed Broadbottom by Max.  The parallels are there, but D.J. and Grindley never connect the dots for readers.  Which brings me to the third thing I love.

3.  There’s so much story between the letters for readers to figure out, it’s captivating! At first, Max is just a 9-year-old fan of an author, but a few letters in we learn, “Christmas is the saddest time of year for my mum and me.”  A few letters more, and we find Max’s father is gone from his life, though we don’t know why.  Later, Max mentions he’s off to yet another boring trip to the hospital, where his doctor examines him as if he were a weird bug.  As for D.J., turns out she’s a motorbike riding, skydiving author who’s fallen in love with a pilot, and who is clearly smitten with Max as well.  Enough so that she takes a break from writing that new book to write a short story about an almost-ten-year-old boy.   Readers finally learn Max’s father has died, but we never do learn what illness takes Max to the hospital and if it’s why he is so much smaller than his peers.  The absence of the label brings to mind how pointless labels can be.  In this way, it’s a book rich for discussion.  And also in the way it models using art/creativity/writing as catharsis.  No wonder it was shortlisted for three different book awards in Grindley’s native U.K.

This is a 3-book series, and the second finds Max ready to write a play at the same moment D.J.’s book is to be made into a movie.  I highly recommend Bravo, Max. In the third book, Relax Max, Max and D.J. take on poetry.  You’ll have a hard time finding it in the U.S., but when my book group wrote to Grindley’s publisher in the U.K., true to form, they sent us six copies free of charge– air mail!  I am a fan.


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