I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives (Grades 7-12, Lexile: 790) is a powerful and emotional story of friendship.

This dual memoir is told from the perspectives of Caitlin, an upper middle class sixth grader from the suburbs of Pennsylvania, and Martin, a young man from the slums of Zimbabwe. The two get to know each other through a school sponsored pen pal assignment, and develop a strong connection and a lifelong friendship. Caitlin is a typical American girl; she spends her time shopping at the mall, hanging out with friends and worrying about boys and school. Martin’s life is very different. His family shares one room in a housing complex in the city of Mutare. Zimbabwe is experiencing post-colonial inflation, and times are very tough. His family has a hard time paying the fees it costs to keep Martin and his siblings in school.


I Will Always Write Back
14-year old Martin, in one of the first pictures he sent to Caitlin
I Will Always Write Back
One of the first photos Caitlin sent to Martin.


While Caitlin enjoys sharing the details of her life with Martin, he is much more hesitant to talk about his. He is worried that if he shares the truth of his family’s poverty, Caitlin will no longer want to be his friend. After his father loses his factory job, Martin is forced to quit school, and tries to help his family by scraping together a bit of money doing odd jobs around town. Sadly, Martin can’t even afford paper to write to Caitlin. In one of the book’s most effective passages, Martin explains how he scrounged through trash to find any bit of paper to write on, finally finding an old ice cream I Will Always Write Backwrapper. He writes to Caitlin, sharing his hardships, and spends almost an entire day’s wage paying for postage. When Martin finally reveals the true extent of his troubles to Caitlin, it proves a wake-up call for the young girl, who enlists her family’s help. Caitlin and her family support Martin emotionally and financially, and their help enables him to go back to school and eventually make his way to an American university.

The chapters are told in first person narration, and alternate between Caitlin and Martin. They each describe what they were going through and what they were feeling as they received each other’s correspondence, and their narratives are interspersed with quotes from their actual letters. While some of Caitlin’s chapters may seem a bit superficial when compared with Martin’s, they serve to effectively point out how very different and difficult Martin’s life is when compared to the average American’s.

There is a lot of wonderful material here to discuss in a classroom setting. This book makes a great addition to any international studies curriculum, and Martin’s first person narration of what life can be like in developing countries may prove to be an eye opener to some students. This book can also be used as an introduction to international politics and economics, as Martin and his family suffer financial hardships partly due to the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The book might also encourage students to find a pen pal of their own. PenPal Schools is a site designed to connect students from more than 70 countries, and includes curriculum guided assignments to supplement multi-cultural learning.

While Martin’s story is true, and there are many children in Africa (and the rest of the world) just like him, the book might work best presented within a broader context with many different representations of modern Africa.

Both Martin and Caitlin speak with true voices, and their stories are emotionally honest and effecting. This is a great book about a friendship that crosses continents and cultures, and spans many decades.


I Will Always Write Back

Martin and Caitlin’s first meeting, 2003.


Booksource Scout Award

*I Will Always Write Back has been nominated for a Scout Award, an internal Booksource award. Booksource will nominate books throughout the year and then ask readers to vote on their favorites to determine the winners. The Scout Award is named in honor of the main character of Booksource’s most popular title, To Kill a Mockingbird. Read more about the awards here.


 Booksource Recommendations: