I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch
“I was a typical twelve-year-old girl, far more interested in what I should wear to school than what I might learn there,” co-author Caitlin Stoicsitz (as she was named then) introduces her 1997 self. “I assumed most kids, regardless of where they lived, had lives similar to mine. And while I imagined that Zimbabwe was radically different from suburban Pennsylvania … I had no idea how much.”
Caitlin chose Zimbabwe – the last country in a long list that her seventh-grade English teacher wrote on the blackboard – for a pen pal program her school began that September. She wrote her first letter to Martin Ganda, after supplementing her limited knowledge of Africa from National Geographic magazine with a quick perusal of Zimbabwe on the (then-) dial-up internet version of Encyclopedia Britannica. She wrote of field hockey and Spice Girls and liking the color pink; she mentioned roller skating and pizza. When she turned in her assignment to the teacher, she “felt giddy, like this was the start of something big.”
On the other side of the world, Martin received the letter with pure excitement. In a household/school/country so different from Caitlin’s, Ganda wondered if she was “just a regular kid like me.” Martin had “only ever seen a white person up close once before”; his family ate chicken once a year at Christmas and beans only time to time; electricity was rationed for 12 hours a day, which is why he wrote his reply by firelight.
Over the next six years – until they meet face to face for the first time in 2003 – the pen pals develop on unshakable bond that transcends distance and differences to become best friends and even call one another family. An epilogue-of-sorts, dated 2008, offers a final glimpse of more of their story (and the internet, of course, reveals even more).
That the story is told in two distinct voices makes it especially appropriate for an aural adaptation. Narrators Chukwudi Iwuji and Emily Bauer are indeed well-chosen: Iwuji’s sincerity and wonder create a warm recitation while Bauer’s vocal adaptation from tweenage-whine to broader maturity makes a marked difference in Caitlin’s likability. If the book motivates one child to reach out to another across oceans, that would be inspiring; that it might encourage and enable many, many more to connect – accessibility to instant internet access exists in even the most remote corners of the world – will surely go a very long way to making the world a better place.
Let Caitlin and Martin lead the way. Read their book. Share their story. Even in our techno-saturated world, a single letter still remains one of the best tools to further international understanding ever.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult