I Will Always Write Back: A Book Review


I Will Always Write BackTitle: I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives
Authors: Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
Published: April 14th, 2015 by Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 392
Genre: Young Adult / Nonfiction
Source: Library / Hardcover
Series: N/A

The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

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 beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends – and better people – through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it. {Goodreads}

As a kid, the idea of a pen pal seemed magical. Using supplies as simple as a pencil and paper, I could have a friend not from the classroom, playground, or the next town over, but rather, across the globe! Today, sending snail mail in such a manner holds similar appeal because, perhaps, writing an actual letter feels more thoughtful than a brief email or a quick text in our hyper-connected society.

My love of mail now explained, I was all sorts of excited to read I Will Always Write Back, a memoir by former pen pals and longtime best friends Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda. Reading the synopsis, their connection is hard to imagine – Caitlin had lived in a Pennsylvania suburb her whole life, while Martin was in Zimbabwe slums as a child and adolescent – but their love, compassion, and support for one another seeps through the chapters of the book, enticing even the most hesitant to turn the page. Neither the journey nor the writing is perfect, but the memoir succeeds in what I believe Caitlin and Martin had hoped: showing just how powerful one letter can be.

The friendship between the two authors began in the classroom, where both participated in a pen pal program. Caitlin, as she describes herself, was the typical American teenager at the time; she lived comfortably with her parents and brother, had a wide group of friends {and crushes to match}, and thought of school more as a social gathering than a place to learn. Martin, in contrast, lived in a poor Zimbabwe neighborhood, where he was forced to share a mattress with his family, had his photo taken only once, and struggled to stay in school because of the cost of attendance. Both narrators expertly emphasize the differences of their teenage lives so that the more important event, their continued exchange of letters, comes as a greater surprise. The minute details of their day-to-day lives are as interesting as they sound, but Caitlin and Martin, along with third author Liz Welch, find balance in what they include by the middle of the book.

Caitlin and Martin’s story spans over several years, for their correspondence continued long after their other classmates and their pen pals stopped. Readers follow the two writers throughout their middle school, high school, and college education as they see Caitlin start her first job, Martin succeed on exams and enter a new school, and both show endless generosity for one another. Too often have I seen these “feel-good” nonfiction books read as two-page magazine articles with added fluff, which is why I appreciate the inclusion of their own letters; the snippets remind the audience of readers that I Will Always Write Back is a true story.

A strong memoir needs just as good of writing as it does a story, and unfortunately, this is where I felt the book most needed improvement. Told in alternating point of views, Caitlin and Martin’s chapters are written in a simplistic style, better known as the “telling, not showing” way of writing; this is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it is marketed to young adults, I expected a more insightful – and less choppy – take. Furthermore, I found myself looking forward to one narrator’s sections more than the other’s depending on what point I was on the story. This is a common trouble with books told from multiple perspectives, but it’s a problem to point out nonetheless.

Books serve many purposes: a lot entertain, many inform, and some, such as I Will Always Write Back, inspire. Few readers will have the same resources or be in a similar situation as Caitlin and Martin, but every person, from a young middle school student to an avid reader of an adult, that picks up the book does have the power to make a difference. If you’re in need of a feel-good, do-good story, I Will Always Write Back fits the bill. I’m a fan.

Need more convincing? Here’s what other reviewers had to say.
“Martin’s dream is to come to the States to study, but that seems impossible, as he struggles just to feed his family. As he and Caitlin grow closer, he discovers her boundless generosity. Their improbable friendship is stretched and tried by political strife, economic disparity, blatant misunderstandings, and growing up” {read the rest of the review at Jones Library Teens HERE}.

“Even though I am far, far from a young adult, I can attest to the universal appeal of this book. Teen readers and beyond will enjoy it” {read the rest of the review at Mary & Me HERE}.

“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” {read the rest of the review at Ink and Page HERE}.

Have a wonderful Wednesday!


2 thoughts on “I Will Always Write Back: A Book Review

  1. I’ve been curious about this book ever since I first heard about it, and you’ve really piqued my interest. I love books that feature countries outside the USA – whether they make me jealous of a character’s European vacation or teach me something about problems facing people in the developing world. And the snail mail aspect does sound lovely – it can be nice to see a few handwritten letters in our digital society. I may have to give this one a shot!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch | “Books serve many purposes: a lot entertain, many inform, and some, such as I Will Always Write Back, inspire… If you’re in need of a feel-good, do-good story, I Will Always Write Back fits the bill. I’m a fan.” […]


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