Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch, Authors
Little Brown and Company, Memoir, Apr. 14, 2015
Suitable for Ages: 12 and up
Themes: Pen Pals, Teenagers, U.S. and Zimbabwe, Friendship, Poverty, Friendship
Book Jacket Synopsis: It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. 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.
Why I like this book:
- This is an inspirational story about a true friendship that begins between two 12-year-old students in 1997 — Caitlin lives in Pennsylvania and Martin lives in the slums of Zimbabwe. They make a pen pal pact that they “will always write back.” Their story is about similarities and contrasts. Their friendship transforms both of their lives and makes them better people.
- The dual memoir is told in first person with alternating chapters that keep readers turning pages. It also adds more depth to the story because readers have immediate access to their intimate thoughts and feelings as they exchange letters and build trust with one another. Caitlin’s early letters detail arguments with friends, boyfriends, shopping, and family. Martin quickly realizes that Caitlin’s life is one of privilege, so it takes a crisis before Martin finally opens up and reveals his difficult life.
- Martin is a serious and determined teen who is wants to be the first in his family to get and education. He is at the top of his class and scores very high on national exams. He is a whiz at math and wants to go to college and major in mathematics and finances. He works hard at his studies, but also has a side job to help his family. His story is the most compelling because of all the obstacles he has to overcome to pursue his dreams.
- I enjoyed watching Caitlin’s growth and change when she realizes the full impact of Martin’s poverty-stricken life. She begins to look at her own life and what matters. She stops hanging with the friends who tease her about her pen pal. She begins to focus on finding ways to help Martin realize his dreams. She turns to her family for help.
- Caitlin’s parents are amazing. They play a significant role in finding ways to send money to Martin’s family after his father loses his job. They pay for Martin and his sibling’s schooling, help his parents with rent and food, and send care packages. Helping Martin pursue higher education in Zimbabwe and attend a university in America, becomes a family project. Caitlin’s mother is a gem! She works tirelessly with American universities to find a full scholarship for Martin. She and Caitlin work with embassies in both countries. This is a family to admire.
- I Will Always Write Back is a powerful story about how one person (and family) can make a difference. It is a story about connecting the dots with others less fortunate and realizing that we all have the power to help others less fortunate, whether it is locally or globally. Both Caitlin and Martin opened each other’s eyes to a bigger and better world. Their memoir is an eye-opener and an excellent choice for students in the classroom. Teachers can use their story to discuss the contrast in cultures and encourage students to get involved in service.
Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda are still best friends today. Caitlin, an ER nurse, is married and has young daughters. Martin earned dual degrees in mathematics and economics for Villanova University and an MBA in finance from Duke University. Over time he saved and purchased a new home for his parents with indoor plumbing, a toilet and their own beds. His sister is planning to attend college in America.
Liz Welch is an award-winning journalist and memoirist whose critically acclaimed first book, The Kids Are All Right, won an ALA Alex Award. She worked with Caitlin and Martin to bring their story to life.