Maggie A. Cross is a journalism student at Columbia University who runs a crossword blog along with her roommate Amanda, under pseudonyms. And while she doesn’t realize it, her professor pseudonymously runs a rival crossword blog along with his teaching assistant, Derry Down. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, when Maggie submits a crossword to the New York Times for consideration, she hears back…from the Times’ first crossword editor Margaret Farrar, who probably shouldn’t be providing editorial feedback on crosswords considering she’s been dead for almost 40 years.
This story of Maggie Cross and Derry Down’s tempestuous rivalry as well as the mystery of Margaret Farrar’s ghostly correspondence unfolds in Letters to Margaret, a graphic novel with a puzzling twist. As the novel progresses, readers are given the option to solve just shy of a dozen crosswords referenced in the book, including a series of puzzles that show Maggie’s guidance under the somewhat archaic tutelage of Margaret Farrar. Written by illustrated by Hayley Gold (who previously ran the crossword review webcomic Across and Down) and published by Lone Shark Games, Letters to Margaret‘s Kickstarter campaign will be running for the next two weeks (until March 29th). The campaign has already surpassed its funding goal, raising $31K from over 700 backers, at the time of this article. But the puzzling doesn’t end with crosswords.
Crossed Words: A Single Story, Two Perspectives
The book is split between Maggie and Derry’s perspectives. While Derry is frustrated by the racist, sexist, and exclusionary elements that often pop up in crossword puzzles, Maggie believes that calls to restrict the language in crosswords are going too far, stifling the creativity of constructors. This thematic split is echoed in the structure of the graphic novel, as the events unfold from Maggie’s perspective starting on one end of the book, and switch to Derry’s perspective on the other end, eventually meeting in the middle. Readers can choose to read the entire book from a single perspective before flipping over to see the other side, or can alternatively hop between chapters to see the book unfold in a rough approximation of chronological order. Both options are equally valid, although I’d recommend swapping perspectives every chapter, as flipping perspectives feels more powerful when the other half is still fresh in your mind.
At its heart, Letters to Margaret is a graphic novel about the power of words. Every character in the graphic novel shares a love for the English language, even the book’s duo of Statler and Waldorf style sentient arrow commentators. The book is packed to the brim with all the trivia, mixed metaphors, spoonerisms, and puns you could ever hope for, and much of the comedy in this romantic comedy comes from those moments of wordplay.
And while Maggie and Derry approach crosswords from different perspectives, the fact that the choice of words matters (whether they’re strung together into sentences or strategically placed in a 15×15 grid) is not up for debate. Where things get complicated and thorny is the question of where to draw the gridded lines. This is an issue the crossword community has been grappling with, and Letters to Margaret manages to illustrate that complexity with consideration and finesse. And while it may not provide answers to all the questions, it hopefully helps deepen the understanding of the questions themselves.
The ‘Word Play Optional Crossword Book
Every chapter of Letters to Margaret starts with a crossword for readers to solve. And while these crosswords are completely optional to do, solving along with the book serves as a guided tour of the issues raised within the pages. Since the crosswords are typically presented before they appear in the comic, solvers can experience them without context before reading through a guided tour of the issues facing constructors and solvers alike.
This comes into further relief when solvers are faced with Margaret Farrar’s more antiquated edits, which highlight how the English language and crosswords are both an evolving art form. These lessons are still passed on for the more casual reader and spoilers are minimized through the use of cleverly placed obstructions, but solving along elevates the crosswords themselves into characters in the comic, constructed with their own unique perspectives. It’s through this process that the book transforms an issue of black and white crosswords into something that presents the shades of gray in between.
A Mini-Taste of Letters to Margaret
As part of the Kickstarter campaign, Letters to Margaret is running a NYTimes Mini-sized puzzle hunt. For the length of the campaign, a “secret admirer” is sending out a series of seven “candy heart” 5×5 mini-crosswords. Each grid secretly contains the name of an animal, even though the clues might not directly call attention to that status.
After completing the seven , a final meta-puzzle will help you put it all together, leading to the identity of your secret admirer. Additional puzzle packs and extras have been unlocked as the campaign progressed, ranging from puzzle packs and crosswords to a 4-page bonus chapter of Letters to Margaret.
Lone Shark’s History of Puzzling Books
While this is Lone Shark Games’ first graphic novel, it isn’t their first foray into publishing puzzling books. The company previously released Puzzlecraft as a guide to constructing a wide variety of puzzle types, along with the interactive puzzle novel The Maze of Games, where readers had to solve a series of puzzles to learn which page contained the next part of the story.
But Letters to Margaret is the first book from the company where puzzle solving is optional. The reading experience is much more similar to books like Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series or Eric Berlin’s Winston Breen books, where puzzles are presented as optional solving, with plot-relevant details referenced in later pages, when necessary. This provides a lower stress reading experience, where the narrative gets to shine.
To order your own copy of Letters to Margaret, head over to the graphic novel’s Kickstarter page, and prepare yourself for some seriously deep cuts of crossword history and lore. Conveniently, the book even includes a brief glossary of puzzle jargon, so you’ll have a reference to bits of crossword lore ranging from the Breakfast Test and PandAs, to Scrabble-****ing.
Note: ARGNet received a digital advanced copy of Letters to Margaret