We were talking a bit about immigration after dinner on Thanksgiving when my son shared a chart with us. (He always provides a little family history on this special day). Turns out many of our ancestors travelled thousands of miles to come live in the USA. From our small group of nine, we had connections to Canada (with a nod to France, Scotland & Ireland), China, Denmark, England, Peru, Poland, and the Shetland Islands. Thinking about these faraway places led me to thoughts about my interest in pen pals.
As a kid I was already a letter writer, exchanging notes with my grandmother and participating in chain letters, but I think it was 5th grade when our class was introduced to pen palling. After carefully mailing my letter off in a super-thin airmail envelope, I was thrilled to receive a letter from London, England (who wouldn’t be? Especially since all I knew about London was the Beatles!). Christine included two tiny black & white pictures of herself (photo booth style). I thought she was quite fashionable with her short mod haircut and I could just imagine her British accent. We only exchanged a letter or two and then she never wrote back, but no matter, my enthusiasm for pen palling had begun!About 25 to 30 years ago, I got quite involved in the hobby. I used to flip through Women’s Circle magazines to find kindred spirits. I also used an international pen pal finder once. The writer below was a woman I met here in the states. She lived nearby for a year or two and our children were in the same play group, so we corresponded for a while after she returned to Japan.I still keep in touch with three wonderful writers from those long ago times: Maryse from France, Michele from Canada, and Monika originally from Germany, but now living in Australia. Seems I am lucky with the letter M.
Recently, I had the good fortune to meet Michele, one of my first pen pals and as pleasant in person as she is in letters. We exchanged small gifts and chatted for about an hour. It would have been wonderful to spend more time together, but she was right at the start of a jam-packed tour of historic places in the area. As it was we were both pretty sleepy in this picture. After so many years of writing, it was fun to hear each other’s voices. Another time, years ago, my French pen pal sent me a cassette tape of her choral group singing. She pointed out her soprano voice above the others and it was thrilling to hear her singing the French words. I was introduced to a beautiful version of a song I still cherish: “Mammy Blue”. If any of this seems corny to the younger generation, you must remember that all this fancy letter writing was long before the internet. (Although I do still force a real letter now and again). Long before you could have video chats with a click of a button. Perhaps my writing friends and I were ahead of our time, reaching out across the world to discover how much we shared with others, be it hobbies, book genres, or even favorite colors or foods. We came to realize those commonalities were much more frequent than any differences. I gained a lot from all the many friends I met through words. I remember a Danish pen pal who I’ve since lost touch with. She collected little silver spoons engraved with locations from around the world. I enjoyed choosing one from New England for her collection. I’ve exchanged many fun items with pals, from bookmarks and photographs to candy and tea bags!
What a thrill it was to find a fancy-stamped letter in my mailbox. Much more fun to find than a publisher’s rejection letter! Come to think of it, you might remember there is a character in my Amy books who has a pen pal hobby. Miss Cogshell is very fond of writing letters and sending them out to faraway places. Even Amy gets into the act by the end of book two.
My children tried out penpalling when they were small. My son had a pen pal who lived in California and my daughter wrote to a girl in Arizona. I think they later found their pals on Facebook.
Okay, time to share some books featuring pen pals.
First up: Same Sun Here, by Silas House & Neela Vaswani for ages 9 & up. Description from Goodreads: In this extraordinary novel in two voices, an Indian immigrant girl in New York City and a Kentucky coal miner’s son find strength and perspective by sharing their true selves across the miles. Meena and River have a lot in common: fathers forced to work away from home to make ends meet, grandmothers who mean the world to them, and faithful dogs. But Meena is an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, while River is a Kentucky coal miner’s son. As Meena’s family studies for citizenship exams and River’s town faces devastating mountaintop removal, this unlikely pair become pen pals, sharing thoughts and, as their camaraderie deepens, discovering common ground in their disparate experiences. With honesty and humor, Meena and River bridge the miles between them, creating a friendship that inspires bravery and defeats cultural misconceptions. Narrated in two voices, each voice distinctly articulated by a separate gifted author, this chronicle of two lives powerfully conveys the great value of being and having a friend and the joys of opening our lives to others who live beneath the same sun. My next selection is I Will Always Write Back for ages 10 & up. Description from Goodreads: 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. This third book is for teens and up. Description from Goodreads: Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen…Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy’s funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist—even if they don’t understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that’s almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend’s memory. All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town. Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love. A few more favorites you might be familiar with.What about you? Have you corresponded with someone of interest? Or maybe for a long time? Got a book to recommend? Please share any memories you may have in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!
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Great Reviews for CALL ME AMY
“Well-drawn, sympathetic characters and the developing spark between Amy and Craig combine to create a pleasant, satisfying read.” –KIRKUS
“Strykowski lovingly captures seaside Maine and the travails of adolescence in her quiet, sweet-natured debut novel.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“Strykowski ably depicts Amy’s insecurity and self-doubt, Craig’s bravura and pain, and Miss Cogshell’s wisdom with a deft, convincing touch. In essence, Amy comes of age as she fights to find her voice in the outside world and shed some of her debilitating insecurity. Readers will cheer her on, and her splendid team, too.” –BOOKLIST
"The protagonist grows throughout the story, from a shy loner to having two friends and speaking her mind in front of her adversaries at school as well as to the whole town. …Amy is a reliable narrator and easily relatable.” –SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
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“To do a good deed, we can find friendship in the most curious of locations. “Call Me Amy” is a novel from Marcia Strykowski following the struggles of Amy Henderson, who finds an injured seal and seeks to nurse it, with the help of a scorned aging woman and an unusual youth. Set in the early 70s and exploring the essence of loneliness, “Call Me Amy” is a powerful read that should prove so very hard to put down, highly recommended.”—MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
“This is a wonderful YA tale for the simple fact that it shows one and all that the power and courage to stand up and be heard in this life comes from within. And that no matter who you are, you have that toughness inside your soul. Craig has a lovely heart that hides behind that sarcasm he aims at the world, and he will remind every small town girl about that quiet boy she fell in love with long ago. ‘Old Coot’ brings the fun and humor along with her, and Pup is the sweetest creature in the world. Having all the ingredients of first love, faith, loss and strength makes ‘Amy’ unforgettable.” —FEATHERED QUILL
“For Amy, 1973 has been a lonely year, her only friend moved away and she feels awkward around her classmates. Until one day Amy discovers that Craig, another classmate, has rescued an injured seal pup. Amy agrees to help him and together they hide the pup at Miss Cogshell’s house, the odd old lady most kids call “Old Coot.” Amy learns that people aren’t always what they seem to be, and she forms a friendship with Craig and Miss Cogshell. A great story about friendship and doing what you think is right.” —KIDSBOOKSHELF
“For those ages 8 to 12, Call Me Amy by Marcia Strykowski will resonate with familiar themes of growing up. The year is 1973 and for Amy Henderson, it has been a lonely one with too many awkward moments to count. When she finds an injured seal pup, she rescues him to rehabilitate him. In the process she forms an unlikely alliance with Craig, a boy around her age, and an older woman in town. With their help she discovers that people aren’t always what they seem despite what others may think of them. This is a story filled with many elements that will appeal to younger readers and I highly recommend it.”—BOOKVIEWS.COM
"A wounded seal pup propels 13-year-old Amy Henderson into an unlikely alliance with an unusual older woman and a mysterious boy in a small Maine fishing village. Readers will cheer for Amy as she protects Pup, gains confidence, faces challenges, and comes up with an idea that could change not only the future of her village, but also, her own life. With a skillful hand, Strykowski introduces us to a small town with memorable characters and the girl who could bring them all together." ---Anne Broyles, award-winning author of PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS
"In a small town in Maine in the 1970's, Amy is standing on the brink of becoming a young adult. The events that will force her to discover who she is, what she is made of and how she wants others to perceive her are sweetly told through awkward teenage moments, the triumphs and sadnesses of that age and ultimately, Amy's discovery of her own beliefs, strength and courage." ---Kathleen Benner Duble, acclaimed author of THE SACRIFICE
“Call Me Amy is exactly the type of book I love. The characters are relatable and likeable; they are individuals that the reader enjoys getting to know while watching them change and develop. The setting of the small Maine coastal town is idyllic, and the reader is quickly and completely immersed in this community. Although the novel takes place in the 1970s, it feels timeless. Young readers will readily associate with Amy’s struggles and triumphs with her relationships with family and friends, and mature readers will be gently nudged back to this period in their life. These universal qualities make this novel a perfect choice for many types of readers. As a Youth Services Librarian, I would enthusiastically recommend Call Me Amy to our young patrons as well as to a more adult audience. Because it can be enjoyed on so many levels, this novel would be an ideal source of discussion for an adult/child book group.” ---Patty Falconer, Youth Services Librarian
"I just finished CALL ME AMY and I think it is wonderful with beautiful descriptions. I love the characters and their story. It is like having seen a good play or movie and later, while you are doing other things, it comes back to you and you think about the characters again." ---Peggy Arnold, retired teacher and avid reader.
For 13-year-old Amy Henderson, 1973 has been a lonely and uneventful year in her small Maine fishing village. With the help of a wounded seal pup, she gets to know Craig, who slinks around in an oversized army jacket. A new law against handling wild marine mammals brings suspense to the story. Where can they keep Pup until he heals? Their only hope is to trust Miss Cogshell, an elderly woman keeping to herself amidst jeers from the local kids, who catches them sneaking Pup into her woodshed in the middle of the night. Throughout the book, small challenges prepare Amy for her greatest one of all. A challenge that leads her to discover that everyone, herself included, has a voice worth hearing.