A Powerful True Story Of Friendship In I Will Always Write Back!


Caitlin’s class chose pen pals from other countries.  She picked Zimbabwe because it sounded interesting and was different than her other classmates who picked mostly European countries.  Thus begins the beautiful friendship between Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda.  Caitlin is a typical young teen in a high middle class home in small town Pennsylvania.  For a while she just assumes Martin’s life is like hers, only he is in Africa with giraffes and lions.  She couldn’t have been more wrong.  Martin lives in extreme poverty.  His family shares a one room hut with another man.  His parents have the only bed and he and his siblings share a blanket and sleep on the floor under the bed.  Martin runs into problems such as finding a picture to send Caitlin, stamps and even paper to write back to her.  He must pay a large sum to attend school.  Martin is a gifted student but cannot afford the tuition.  When Caitlin sends him some cash, she has no idea how much that small amount of money will provide for Martin’s family.  The friendship eventually keeps Martin’s family from starvation when his father loses his job.  Young readers will learn, like Caitlin did, how teens live in other parts of the world and will understand through Martin’s letters the crippling poverty of Africa.  This story is both beautiful and compelling.  It is a great read for both male and female teens.  It is one that should be taught in the classroom.

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

Discuss how Martin and Caitlin’s lives are different?

Compare how their lives are similar or different from your lives.

Martin would give anything to stay in school.  How does that make you feel about your school?  Do you take school for granted?  Will you look at your life differently if you were in the same situation?

Think about what $20 could bring to a family in Martin’s community.  What do you normally spend $20 on?

Discuss Caitlin’s reaction when she realizes how Martin’s family live.

Discuss the reaction when Caitlin and Lauren tried to join the African American Awareness club and the Break Dance Club.

Discuss Martin’s reaction to the boarding school.

Discuss Caitlin’s friends and boyfriend’s reaction to her friendship with Martin.

Discuss how Caitlin’s family helped Martin and his family.

Would you want to have a pen pal after reading this book?

The Art Of Not Breathing Is One To Pick Up In 2016.


Elsie’s twin brother, Eddie is gone.  He disappeared when they were eleven years old.  They don’t even have a body to bury which makes the feelings of loss even more complex for Elsie and her family.  Elsie is now 16 and her family is a mess.  Her father disappears at times, her mother cannot cope with losing her son, and something terrible is happening to her older brother, Dillon.  Elsie and Dillon are not allowed near the water except when they have their yearly ceremony to say goodbye to Eddie.  Elsie becomes fascinated with a group of boys who free dive.  She becomes one of them after meeting up with Tavey at the boat house where she hangs out to smoke and eat sweets.  Elsie falls in love with the feeling of being underwater and being with Tavey.  She then gets the idea that she can find out what happened to her Eddie if she can only dive deep enough.  I enjoy books where I can learn about something new.  Readers will learn about free diving.  Sarah Alexander does a beautiful job of describing how it would feel to fill your lungs with air and marvel at being underwater.  I love that Elsie is not skinny.  Most people are not.  She deals with bullies and has a hard time making friends which many teen girls will relate to.  It doesn’t help that everyone in her small Scottish town knows what happened to her family.  The body image problems her brother, Dillon has makes for an interesting perspective about little known eating disorders among teenage boys.  I fell in love with these characters, especially Elsie and Tavey.  Young love is messy and clumsy.  Alexander captures this so beautifully.  There is so much happening in this book and the characters are complex and interesting.  I enjoyed it very much!  Unfortunately we have to wait a while for this one.  It won’t be published until April of 2016.

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

What is your first impression of Elsie?  How about Tavey?

Discuss how Elsie hears and sees her brother, Eddie?

Discuss her parent’s fear of letting her and her brother, Dillon near the water?

What do you think happened to Eddie?

Discuss Eddie’s challenges.

Discuss Elsie’s interactions with the divers.  Would you have jumped off the cliff?  Why do you think Elsie did it?

Discuss Elsie’s feelings for Tavey and Danny.  How are they different?

Discuss Dillon’s health problems.  Did you realize boys deal with this disorder as well.

Talk about body image and how that affects Elsie as a character.

Discuss this passage, “Dillon and I are like otters.  We have our own spaces – I like to think of them sandy coves – but on the edge of mine and on the edge his there’s a little patch where we can be together and everything it okay.  It’s a place where we don’t fight or pretend not to know each other.  I worry that our patch is getting smaller, like the tide is coming in.”

Discuss this passage, “One minute excited and like I’m part of something, and the next like I’m something he accidentally trod in.”

Discuss this passage when Mick tells Elsie, “Go with your heart, not your head, because your head doesn’t know what it wants.  It only thinks about the moral high ground.  And if your heart isn’t happy, when you try to share it you’ll make others unhappy too.”