Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Will Always Write Back by C. Alifirenka & M. Ganda with L. Welch

I Will Always Write Back is a moving memoir that advocates for compassion and respect for children in developing countries. For a seventh grade pen pal assignment, Caitlin chose to correspond with Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe because she'd never heard of that African country. Over the course of six years, they formed a close friendship. Their story is told in alternating chapters, dating from 1997.

At first Caitlin believes that Martin is well off since he pays fees to go to school and is top of his class, and he doesn't want to scare her off with the full truth. Martin assumes that Caitlin wouldn't understand, but when she learns of his impoverishment, she secretly sends her babysitting money to him. Later she convinces her middle class parents to help support Martin's family so that he can stay in school. However, sending money securely to Zimbabwe is nearly impossible. Martin's quest to find a scholarship to an American college is a page-turner story with everyday details that make it real and relatable.
"The last Fanta I had was two Christmases ago - at the beginning of the economic troubled time. My father could only afford one that year, so we passed it around, taking small sips, holding the sunshine-sweet liquid in our mouths for as long as possible before giving in to a swallow."
This engaging book teaches a lesson about the world from a personal perspective without sounding too preachy. Caitlin, despite her generosity, is not a saint. She's a typical American teenager who is more focused on shopping, popularity and boys than on her schoolwork. Most kids will relate to Caitlin and her everyday problems, which contrast sharply with Martin's day-by-day struggle to obtain basic necessities like food, water, shelter and medical treatment. His Herculean efforts to stay in school inspire Caitlin to take her education more seriously and to choose a career in nursing. She gets as much from him as he does from her. Their true story shows that it's possible to make a difference and that the differences between us aren't insurmountable.

I Will Always Write Back would make an excellent classroom supplement to an international pen pal assignment. The easy-to-read style is a good match for kids ages ten to fourteen. There are only a couple of chapters with drugs and underaged drinking, but a teacher could skip over them. Since the book follows the characters from seventh grade to college, it is being marketed as young adult. Older teens and adults would enjoy it too, but the naive perspective and simple writing style are better geared for younger readers, in my opinion. Read with a box of tissues.

Reviewer's Disclosure: the owner of Main Point Books in Pennsylvania recommended this book to me. I purchased it at Longfellow Books in Maine. As a teen, I spent a summer in Kenya studying wildlife conservation and learned how challenging life is for families in developing countries. The experience changed how viewed the world. Books like I Will Always Write Back are not only important; they are necessary. Family photo below is by my dad.

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@Barrie Summy

Sorry to be slow to respond lately. I've been offline celebrating my daughter's high school graduation.

20 comments:

Unknown said...

I really enjoy your thoughtful reviews, Sarah. You set the bar high for well thought out critiques, and do enticing justice to the stories.

tina said...

Congrats to your daughter. What a lovely family photo.

Lucy said...

I had pen pals growing up (from 6th grade until I got married) so can relate how the person on the other end of the letters can impact your life. I've also recently had a developing interest in Africa so that aspect interests me as well.

Thanks for a great review. I suspect I will be adding this book to my TBR pile. :)

A Cuban In London said...

Great review. I liked the fact that the children were central to the narrative, I think. Gorgeous family photo there, too. Wel done to your daughter! :-)

Greetings from London.

Bee said...

Congratulations on your daughter's graduation! That is a truly lovely family photograph.
My nephew graduated today . . . all of a sudden, it seems like everyone's kids are moving out into the world.

I haven't heard of this book -- but I do love stories (fictional or real-life) that make us aware of the rest of the world and the problems that others grapple with every day. I recently read a travelogue of Africa (Long Way Down) and the two authors both spoke about how impassioned the African children were about getting an education -- and how many difficulties they face.

Unknown said...

Yay for your daughter! That will, I'm sure, be a treasured family photo!

This book sounds very appealing--it's difficult sometimes to remember that often rough days and hardships are almost meaningless when compared to those of many others. How wonderful that these two pen pals kept up their communication for so long!

Alyssa

Cloudbuster said...

The tragedy of what Mugabe has done to Zimbabwe is sickening. Thank you for reviewing this book. I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds amazing and truly inspiring, especially for young readers. Excellent review!

Ellen Booraem said...

Wow. This sounds like a must-read for me. I especially love that an American kid was inspired by a Zimbabwean's quest for an education. Those who don't vote in every election should have the same experience! We take so much for granted in First World countries.

thecuecard said...

Great family photo! Happy graduation to your daughter. The book's true story seems incredible and heartwarming so thanks for letting me know of this memoir. I, too, have visited Africa and am quite fascinated by the stories, people and wildlife there.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Excellent review. This is a worthwhile book. Thanks for reviewing it.

Congratulations to your daughter. Your dad took a lovely photo!

Amanda Summer said...

Congratulations to your daughter - what a lovely family shot. Where is she off to next year? My son just graduated, too, from college.

By the way, I'd love to learn more about your summer in Kenya.

troutbirder said...

Great graduation pic & way to go to your most talented daughter. As to the premise & theme of the reviewed book, I like it. Two of my own grandchildren, a girl from Ethiopia and a boy from Rwanda, are playing a similar but in person role now as new citizens in America....:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Stacy, thanks! I love your reviews too.

Tina, Linda, thanks!

Lucy, I’d love to hear your reaction to this memoir as a pen-pal-er yourself.

ACIL, thanks for sharing my review on Google+. I confess I don’t stay on top of Google+ as I’m on 5 other social media platforms.

Bee, congrats to your nephew too! Yes, books do open up eyes to the real world.

Alyssa, I was impressed and touched that they are still in touch as adults and wrote this memoir together. The hardships were easier to read, knowing there was a happy ending.

Cloudbuster, this book doesn’t address the political issues directly, but it does show what has happened under Mugabe’s rule to the poor. I can understand how he rose to power, fighting white colonialism, but I can’t understand how he has ruled for over three decades. Electoral corruption would be another book…

Ellen, well said indeed.

Thecuecard, I’d love to hear your reaction to this book.

Linda, thanks! My dad encouraged my interest in photography as a kid, setting up a darkroom for me in high school. The link to your review is for a previous month. I wasn’t able to find it.

Amanda, my daughter is taking a gap term to work on organic farms abroad (WWOOF) and then will be joining her big brother at Middlebury College. Congratulations to your son! What are his plans? One of these days, probably when I write a novel set in East Africa, I’ll scan my slides from Kenya and share those adventures. It was a School For Field Studies program.

Troutbirder, I thought of your multinational family when I read this book.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Congrats on the high school graduation. Gotta love those!

It has been a long time since I've thought of Pen Pals. I began writing to a girl my age back in the mid-1960's. My father had stayed with her grandmother during WW2. We still exchange Christmas cards and hope to meet one day. I suppose blogging is a bit like having pen pals.

Kelly H-Y said...

Such a beautiful family photo! Congrats to your daughter!!

Lucy said...

I just finished reading this book. What an incredible story! Just wish I'd remembered your note about having tissues handy while reading it. :)

Thanks again for the review and recommendation. It was definitely worth reading.

tina said...

A few good books and a beach? Perfect!

Barrie said...

Thank you for yet another wonderful and thoughtful review. I'll be reading I Always Write Back beginning this afternoon! I think it'll be a great book for my teen daughter as well. I had a penpal in New Zealand for years and years. We started writing in grade 5. Congrats to Gemma!

Sarah Laurence said...

MR, thanks for sharing your pen pal story – such a cool connection!

Kelly, thanks!

Lucy, thanks so much for coming back and sharing your reaction. I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

Tina, so true.

Barrie, thank for hosting the book club! So you had a pen pal too. I never had one assigned at school, but I kept in touch with a camp friend who moved back to Japan via letters for years.

Amanda Summer said...

Your daughter's plans sound exciting! Taking a gap year has become much more popular, and makes sense - good luck to her and congrats on her acceptance to Midd!

My son was offered a job at an eating disorder clinic. With his degree in clinical psych, he has found a perfect fit, and has just finished three weeks of on the job training. He has a lot of responsibility from the get-go but he loves his job. We feel very fortunate he found work in his field, as a lot of his peers have not yet been able to.