by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, with Liz Welch
Conditional Recommendation: A young American girl and a young Zimbabwean boy become pen pals and build a friendship through letters that changes both of their lives for the better.
Awards: The Magnolia Award for 9-12 (2017), Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award (2018)
I discovered this book on accident when perusing audiobooks. Knowing nothing about it other than reading the short summary, I listened—and was amazed by this story. Because of the vastly different upbringing, culture, and everyday life, Martin’s side of the story is fascinating and surprising. In many ways, this book is a contrast of two lives—one in poverty in politically and economically volatile Zimbabwe and one in comfort and wealth in America. It can give the reader an appreciation for other ways of living, exposure to a different culture, and appreciation for all the blessings they have in their day to day life.
This is 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.
As Caitlin goes through middle school and high school, friend drama and dating are portrayed as normal and Caitlin has a few boyfriends throughout the book. There’s no physical intimacy mentioned. One of Caitlin’s boyfriends smokes pot at home because his parents don’t pay attention or care and Caitlin thinks it’s cool that he can do that. Richy, Caitlin’s older brother, returns from college to live at home and attend community college because he spent more time partying than on school. Caitlin’s mom discovers a bong in Richy’s room and takes it out to the garage, smashes it with a hammer, and returns it to Richy’s room. There’s some drama between Caitlin and her friends early on in the book but as she learns more about Martin, Caitlin gains a more mature perspective on things. Martin’s side of the story is quite clean. He explains how polygamy isn’t common in Zimbabwe but it does occur and he has an uncle with two wives. Martin’s dad is described as a drinker and womanizer in the early years of the family and his mother is basically the head of the household. All of these things play only a minor role in the story and since it’s a memoir, it’s not like the authors chose to put these elements in to add to the story—they’re simply recounting how it was and how it happened.
Caitlin Stoicsitz – The story begins with Caitlin, after that the story is told in a back-and-forth fashion with Martin. My favorite part about Caitlin is her big heart and how her relationship with Martin causes her gain a new and mature perspective on life. As a twelve-year-old, she’s concerned about what she wears to school, boys, and her friends and their dramas. Martin introduces her to a world completely different from her own—an unstable and impoverished way of living where finding money for food, rent, and school is a daily reality. Caitlin comes to understand how much abundance she has. Her awareness of Martin’s plight and her concern for him bring out the best in her.
Martin Ganda – A more hardworking and optimistic young man you won’t find. Much of what Martin does is for his family. He works hard at school for his family, he works in the market for his family, he pursues a future in America—not for himself or his own gain—but so he could support his family and give them a better life. Martin is honorable, kind-hearted, and hardworking. His optimism and hope for the future despite his dismal circumstances is amazing. Martin Ganda’s story makes you want to cheer.
Family is a huge part of this book. Each family works together to support its members. The care and team mentality that each person contributed to their family was uplifting to witness. It was a team effort by the Stoicsitz family to ensure Martin had an opportunity to pursue an education and to support Martin and his family financially.
I was really impressed that both Caitlin and Martin never looked down on one another for their statuses in life. Martin was never upset at Caitlin’s abundance or impatient with her when she shared troubles that were inconsequential to his own; instead, he was always thankful and happy that she had wealth. They always treated each other with kindness and concern, never belittling or judging the other. They built a friendship that fully accepted who the other person was and it’s an inspiring relationship to read about.
Throughout the entire book and very difficult circumstances, Martin remains thankful. He’s thankful for every little thing he has and everything he receives. He never expects good or thinks he deserves it, but he hopes and his overwhelming gratitude when good happens to him is inspiring.
The experience of watching two young people worlds apart develop a strong friendship and grow up leaves the reader feeling uplifted. It’s a truly great story.
There’s quite the suspense leading up to the ending! The ending is hope realized.