I will always write back How one letter changed two lives

Caitlin Alifirenka

Book - 2015

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin's class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of -- so she chose it. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one. That letter was the beginn...ing of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

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2nd Floor 305.235/Alifirenka Due Oct 20, 2023
New York : Little, Brown and Company 2015.
First edition
Physical Description
392 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Main Author
Caitlin Alifirenka (author)
Other Authors
Martin Ganda (author), Liz Welch, 1969-
Review by New York Times Review

in A suburban Pennsylvania classroom in 1997, a life-altering moment: Caitlin Alifirenka, "a typical 12-year-old American girl," more interested in what she "should wear to school" than what she "might learn there," chooses a pen pal from Zimbabwe. Caitlin has never heard of Zimbabwe, but the name, "exotic, and difficult to pronounce," intrigues her. The pen pal she's matched with is a studious, cheerful, bright 14-year-old boy named Martin Ganda. Admonished by his mother that "school is your only hope," he has made it his goal always to be No. 1 in his class so he can earn a scholarship for college. He and his friends "all knew and loved America,... the land of Coca-Cola and the W.W.F.," and Caitlin's first letter, bubbly, effusive, quintessentially American in its references to roller skating and bowling, pizza and the Backstreet Boys, enchants him. She, in turn, is charmed by his exuberance and integrity, and likens his letter to "a winning lottery ticket." But while Caitlin enjoys a comfortable middle-class life, Martin's family is desperately poor; they live in one of Zimbabwe's worst slums and share one room with another family, a mattress their only furniture. It becomes hard for Martin to reciprocate Caitlin's friendly gestures. A photograph is prohibitively expensive. He has to carry luggage for tips simply to keep up their correspondence. So he makes "the only promise that I knew I could keep: that I would always write back, no matter what." "I Will Always Write Back" is Caitlin and Martin's dual pen-pal autobiography, told in their alternating voices. Written with Liz Welch, it spans the six years from their first exchange of letters to Martin's arrival on United States soil, where he will study at Villanova on a full scholarship secured for him by Caitlin's indefatigable, big-hearted mother, and go on to earn an M.B.A. from Duke University. Initially, Martin decides "to keep it light" ; he doesn't want to "trouble Caitlin with my life worries or scare her off." But as things worsen for his family after his father loses his menial job and Caitlin begins to worry about why he hasn't written her, he decides to tell her the truth. Even paper is too expensive, so he has to write his letter on a discarded ice-cream bar wrapper. Seeing the wrapper and hearing that Martin has had to leave school because his family can't pay the fees, Caitlin sends him $20 she earned babysitting. One of the story's most important messages is how small contributions can have a huge impact. The dollar Caitlin sends pays for "enough groceries for two weeks," while that $20 is "more money than my father made in several months," Martin writes, and enables him to return to school. Medicine from Caitlin's grandmother's bathroom saves Martin's mother 's life when she's stricken with malaria. Caitlin is transformed, as well. She comes to see how "truly privileged" she is, and that things she took for granted are "total luxuries." She realizes "how much injustice was happening in the world." Martin's medical aspirations inspire her to pursue a career in nursing. Penpalsmanship is usually rote and sentimental, and this book sometimes has that feel. If the story weren't true, it would be considerably harder to read. Caitlin's and Martin's endearing personalities come across far more vividly in the excerpts from their charming letters than in the rest of the book, though Martin's sections are both more inherently interesting and better written than Caitlin's. ("My crush on Matt grew until I could not take the pressure that whirred inside me every time I saw him in algebra.") But the remarkable tenacity of these two souls pulled like magnets across the world by their opposite polarities - one committed to helping, the other to surviving - is deeply affecting. There is no way to read their account without feeling vulnerable to just that stab at sympathy that started their story. It is quite a little miracle of unexpected genuineness. PRISCILLA GILMAN is the author of "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 10, 2015] Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1997, a 12-year old girl from Hatfield, Pa., and a 14-year-old boy from Mutare, Zimbabwe, began a pen-pal relationship. In alternating chapters, Alifirenka and Ganda recount how their mutual curiosity led to an increasingly honest, generous correspondence. Martin loves receiving Caitlin's photo, but when she requests one in return, "My heart went from sprinting to a standstill." He sends her the only photo his family owns. Hearing BBC accounts of Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil alarms Caitlin, but a letter written on a popsicle wrapper shocks her: "I gasped. My friend was writing me on trash." She begins to send him her babysitting money-which Martin's family uses to buy food and to pay school fees and rent-and Caitlin's family eventually decides to sponsor Martin's education. Sensitively and candidly demonstrating how small actions can result in enormous change, this memoir of two families' transformation through the commitment and affection of long-distance friends will humble and inspire. Ages 12-up. Agent: (for Alifirenka and Ganda) Sarah Burnes, Gernert Company; (for Welch) Brettne Bloom, Kneerim, Williams & Bloom. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 6 Up-The true story of two young pen pals who forge a life-altering connection. In 1997, Caitlin, a typical 12-year-old girl from a middle class American family, began writing to Martin, a studious 14-year-old from a Zimbabwe slum. In her letters, Caitlin described her life, which consisted of shopping trips, quarrels with friends, and problems at school. Martin was initially far more circumspect in his responses. Inflation had rocketed in Zimbabwe, and even finding money for postage was a struggle for the boy. Staying in school, which required paying costly fees, became merely a dream. Eventually, Martin revealed the harsh realities of his life to Caitlin, who began sending money and gifts. What started as chatty letters turned into a lifeline for Martin and his family, as Caitlin and her parents helped the boy stay in school and achieve his goal of studying at an American university. This is a well-written, accessible story that will open Western adolescents' eyes to life in developing countries. Told in the first person, with chapters alternating between Caitlin's and Martin's points of view, this title effectively conveys both of these young people's perspectives. Caitlin's early chapters, however, in which she discusses friendship and boyfriend woes, feel somewhat superficial compared with Martin's genuinely troubled life. While these chapters provide an effective contrast between the two teens' lives, they may discourage some readers from continuing with what becomes a strong and inspiring story. VERDICT A useful addition to most collections and an eye-opening look at life in another culture.-Michelle Anderson, Tauranga City Libraries, New Zealand (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Horn Book Review

With Liz Welch. Seventh grader Caitlin selects a pen pal from Zimbabwe, the most exotic place she has heard of. Caitlin and Martin correspond for six years, building a friendship and trust that widens Caitlin's world view and allows Martin to be honest about his incredible challenges. Told in alternating voices, their story would have been more compelling with stronger editing. Photos are appended. (c) Copyright 2015. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A pen-pal correspondence between an American girl and a Zimbabwean boy blossoms into a lifelong friendship. In alternating chapters, the authors relate their story, which begins in 1997 when 12-year-old Caitlin chooses a boy in Zimbabwe for a pen-pal assignment. Caitlin's privileged life in Pennsylvania differs tremendously from Martin's hardscrabble life in millworkers' housing, where his family shares one room with another one. The top student in his class, Martin dreams of studying at an American university, but even just continuing high school in Zimbabwe seems like a long shot. Caitlin, not recognizing the extent of Martin's poverty, sends some of her babysitting money with her letters, and Martin's family uses it for food. Eventually, Caitlin and her parents become Martin's sponsors for his studies and help him obtain a scholarship to Villanova University in 2003. Written with journalist Welch, the heartfelt recollections read like an overlong magazine article. The early chapters in particular have the inauthentic feel of sentimentalized adult reminiscence, and they accentuate the difference between an American whose eyes are open to the value of international friendship and her less-enlightened classmates. The action builds toward the happy climax of Martin's arrival in the United States, but at the same time, it conveys a sense of the power of do-gooder, take-charge Americans to effect change. A feel-good, message-driven book that may appeal to adults more than teens. (photographs) (Memoir. 12 up) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.