I think you have to be over a certain age to be able to understand the whole pen pal phenomenon. I can remember different childrens’ shows offering the chance to communicate with someone your own age in a completely different culture. Kids magazines also were a place to find youth from other lands looking to connect. They always seemed exotic, but like many kids, I either didn’t follow through or after a letter or two, life got in the way and the correspondence ceased.
What’s interesting about I Will Always Write Back, the new book about the relationship between an upper-middle-class girl from the Pennsylvania suburbs and a poor boy from an even poorer community in Zimbabwe, is that’s exactly what didn’t happen. Not only did the exchange of letters continue, but Caitlin and Martin became as close as siblings – without ever meeting in person.
This book takes place in the 90s, but, like today, that was definitely a time of excess and “me” behavior in the US. Most teens have no idea what it’s like to live anywhere else, and even if they did venture to Mexico or Jamaica for a holiday, they would be whisked straight past any overt poverty to an enclosed compound full of buffets, huge swimming pools and idleness. Even the news didn’t go into great depth about what’s happening around the world, and how many high schoolers watch the news anyway?
Wanting to find a connection, a similarity between them and others, Caitlin starts of her communications with all about her, her family, what she likes to do, etc. What she finally comes to realize is that Martin’s situation is so far removed from her everyday life that she feels not only shocked but ashamed that she had immediately assumed that his financial reality was on par with hers. Of course, Martin isn’t telling her his money woes directly (he, among other things, explains that he has to work hard to make the money to buy a stamp to mail her letter), but once she finally reads between the lines, she begins to think about how easy her own life is.
During their letter writing, Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate skyrockets, food costs go up and Martin’s father loses his job. In many African countries, school children must pay to attend school, and Martin, who has always been the top in his class and needs to keep it that way to get to university, fears that his dream of becoming a doctor will come to a screeching halt. But the bond that he has forged with Caitlin means that his American family will do all they can to help him and his family.
For kids who want to understand how other kids live, and what they go though on a daily basis, this is a wonderful story. It shows how total strangers can be there for each other and the lengths people will go to in order to help each other. The voice is that of the high school girl who lived the story, not the adult writing it now, and I think that is what will draw in teens.
I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda was published April 14, 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Ink and Page checked this book out of the amazing Plano Public Library.
Genre: Young Adult Non-Fiction
Ages: 13 and up