Marcia Strykowski

Ever Had a Pen Pal?

1880_steamshipWe 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. thanksgiving-20161124_mg_8260From 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!penpal-13
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.penpal-12I 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. marcia-michele-circleSeems 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”.  penpal-11If 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. penpal-8I 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!

penpal-14What 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.

penpal-3First 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.
penpal-1
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.
Tpenpal-2his 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.penpal-6What 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!

46 Comments

  1. Hi Marcia, I loved this post! I had two pen pals as a young teen, one from Germany, one from Belgium. I wish I was still in touch with them. I cringe now when I think about my misguided (but sincere) attempts to write in French to the Belgian pen pal. I’m sure my high school French was barely comprehensible. I couldn’t make sense of her reply, probably because it was in Flemish!
    I thoroughly enjoyed The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie society, and would recommend it to anyone. So lovely! How sad that its debut author died before it was published. Your recommendation has bumped up The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend on my TBR list. Thanks!

    Ali

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    • Oh, fun, glad to hear about your pen pals. I’m sure they enjoyed your letters. I really enjoyed The Guernsey…etc. book, too (Such long titles some of these books have!). Thanks for sharing, Ali!

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  2. I had a pen pal in grade school. I think the girl was from Ireland, but I’m not sure. Our correspodence did not last long. When I began reading this post, it came to me that blogging is a quick and sophisticated form of having pen pals. No wonder I love it so much!

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  3. Louise Pryor

    Hi, Marcia,
    When I was in high school our French teacher set us up with pen pals, I had a girl from Algeria, and we corresponded (in French and in English) through most of my college years. Then I stopped hearing from her–after she’d told me her brothers were in the Algerian Army, seeing atrocities, and she was worried about them. Her final letter told me one brother had been killed, and she was worried about her whole family; there were bombings nearby, neighbors were dying. I wrote many times, but never heard again, and I assume she died or had to flee her home or some other dreadful fate overtook her.

    The only other pen pal story I have is much happier. Though I’m not involved in this project, many of the people here where I live are part of a group that has fourth grade pen pals from a local school. Twice a year the students are brought here and meet with their pen pal “grandparents.” It’s a great experience for both the seniosr and the children; both learn so much and find much enjoyment in the friendships.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, how awful about your Algerian friend. Sounds like you had a good relationship with her and you must have been worried sick when you stopped receiving her letters. Your other story sounds like a wonderful program, a fun, enriching way to build bridges between kids and seniors. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about pen pals, Louise!

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  4. Hello Marcia, I enjoyed this post so much! First reading a little about your family (what a lovely son you have) then about some of your pen palls and onto books. Perfect! I love the way you used the images of envelopes and stamps throughout the post. I received a parcel from my friend in Holland this week. We have never met, but we always remember each other at Christmas and on our birthdays. She is very artistic and many of the things she sends me are home made. I’m not so good at that, so I search antique and book markets looking for things I know she will like. We met when I was selling books and have kept in touch ever since. She has gone through some tough times over the years as have I, and we’ve always been there for one another. She introduced me to The Guernsey Literary & Potato peel Pie Society and I told her about 84 Charing Cross Road, (we have a shared love of reading as you can see). Having just read your post, I’m going to look for The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, and once read I will send it on to my lovely pen pal.

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    • How wonderful that you and your pen pal in Holland have kept in touch for so many years, sounds like you have a lot in common. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Barbara!

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  5. I had several pen pals when I was young – French, German, American (Californian I think). The best one was Susanne from West Germany (my other German pen pal was from East Germany). This was set up by school as a preliminary to an exchange when we were 14 or 15 – she came to us for 3 weeks at Easter and we went there in the summer. The German students spoke wonderful English and I’m ashamed to say that all the British students had terrible German and were mostly too embarrassed to try it out. To be fair, the German girls had been learning since they were 9 and we started at 12, but to this day I can’t do much more than order coffee, cake and beer! I don’t know what happened to Susanne – we kept in touch through university then lost touch. These days, as someone says above, my blogging friends are like pen pals.

    Another comment above reminded me of Djamila, my Algerian flat mate when I was doing my library degree in 1980. I kept in touch by letter with her for a while after she went back to Algeria and then stopped hearing. I’ll never know if she just lost interest or if something worse happened.

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    • Anabel, thanks for your interesting history with pen pals. I often feel lacking for speaking only one language fluently when so many of my friends in other countries speak several. Happy blogging!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I find letter writing very romantic, Marcia. Don’t recall having a pen pal though some of my friends did. The correspondence usually went a few times and then stopped. Thanks for the book recommendations! I think I have 84, Charing Cross Road on my to-read list.

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    • Yes, there’s something about pretty stationery filled with inked sentiments going across the miles to land in someone else’s hands. Enjoy your reading!

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  7. I had a pen pal from Cambodia called Bou Samay. After she grew up and got married, she moved to France, and I lost track of her. I think anyone who ever had a pen pal would like the book “Pen Pal,” for all ages by Francesca Forrest.

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    • Pretty name, I’ll bet you learned a lot about Cambodia through her letters. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Here via Suzannesmom–what a lovely post! Everything about having a pen pal is wonderful, down to seeing other people’s handwriting and of course the beautiful stamps from all over. My most precious pen pal experience was with an author, whom I started writing to when I was in fourth grade. When I turned eighteen, I went to visit him. We continued to stay in touch, and eventually, after I’d married and had kids, I took my whole family to meet him. When I was writing the book Suzanne’s mom mentioned, a friend of mine told me of her mother’s remarkable pen pal experience: her mom was from a small village in the Philippines, and she became a pen pal to an American girl in Kansas. The correspondence ended up lasting 50 years, surviving a world war, and transmitting down to the next generation.

    The books you mention here sound excellent–I’m especially drawn to the second one. If you do try my novel Pen Pal, I hope you enjoy it. Meanwhile, best of luck with your own writing, and thank you for a great blog post!

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    • Nice how you stayed in touch with your pen pal for so long. Your other story sounds fascinating, too, thanks for giving us more information and best wishes for many sales!

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  9. A lovely post, Marcia. Someone recently mentioned that some blogging relationships feel like pen pals. In a way, I agree. Thanks for the book recommendations 🙂

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    • Thanks! Not quite as personal as letter writing, but after blogging for a while, special relationships across the miles certainly do happen.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love this post, Marcia! I had a pen pal in Sweden when was in high school. I lost touch with him when we both went to universities. I also had a pen pal in France. She delighted in correcting my French! When i was a book seller I had many pen pals in England. It was so much fun to exchange little slices of everyday life in letters and then meet when i was in England on buying trips or working on research. I think blogs and Facebook are my 21stC versions of pen pals. Now I correspond with friends in Great Britain, Denmark, Australia,Estonia!, Germany, and South Africa. Isn’t the world wonderful? So many lovely people to get acquainted with!

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    • Wow, Colleen, you have quite a worldly collection of friends. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on our mutual interest!

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  11. I had a pen pal during school and loved getting those Air Mail envelopes!

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    • Such fun to get mail back then, whereas now I often forget to check. Seems everything important comes by email.

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  12. Great post. It brought back memories of my pen pals when I was in teens.

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    • I’m happy you enjoyed the post, Olivia. Thanks for letting me know!

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  13. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend sounds really good, I’ll have to check that one out. I had a few pen pals when I was in school, and I’m glad they did that. I’m hoping they still do and that my son will be able to have one as well, once he’s older.

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    • I hope your little guy will have a pen pal, too. Thanks for checking in, Leandra!

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  14. Ashley

    I’ve never had a pen pal! I think I’ve missed out on what sounds like lots of fun!!!

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    • It’s never too late, Ashley, a quick google search brings up many pen pal programs, most of them free! 🙂

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  15. What a fun post! I have always loved receiving mail and therefor wrote a lot of letters growing up. I had a pen pal in Sweden when I was in elementary in middle school. It was so interesting learning more about her and her culture through her letters. She used to teach me Swedish words in her letters. Somehow we stopped writing in high school, but I always enjoyed writing to her. 🙂

    How awesome that you got to meet Michele, your first pen pal. Very special!

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    • Learning Swedish words must have been fun. Sometimes I’d send away for free stuff with cereal box tops just to receive mail. One was a little red train. I filled out the form using my stuffed monkey’s name, so he could get mail (and a toy). Yes, it was great to meet Michele!

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  16. It’s fun to hear about all of your wonderful pen pal experiences. I had several short-term pen pals when I was a child. I think that I got their names out of Highlights Magazine. I remember that one lived in a town named Cottonwood. At the time I thought that was the strangest name for a town.

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    • I didn’t realize (or remember) that Highlights had a pen pal section, how fun! It’s interesting how certain town names can sound so strange when you haven’t heard of them before. 🙂

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  17. Bette Norton

    I love your post! What enriching experiences you have had and are still having corresponding to people from far away lands! What a treat for you to meet one of your pen pals! Love your book recommendations and I look forward to reading a few of them! If only everyone could take the time, to have the wonderful experience of meeting and learning about other people from different cultures and faith backgrounds, what a wonderful, peaceful world we would have! :).

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    • Very true, what a wonderful world it would be, sounds like a song… Thanks, Bette!

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  18. Michele

    Hi Marcia

    I enjoyed seeing the family photo, and reading about the sharing of family history at Thanksgiving.

    And of course, I loved the section on pen pals and books on the topic! Loved how our years of writing and then meeting brought back such great memories for many of your readers. May I add for your readers that Marcia is just a delight, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet.

    Michele

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    • Thanks for your kind words, Michele. I consider you an expert on pen palling, as I know you’ve had, as well as met, many writing friends over the years. As always, keep in touch!

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  19. Another charming post Marcia!! I had a 3rd cousin in Louisiana that i was a pen pal with as a kid. Now we keep touch on Facebook, but I did get back to see her a few times of the years. And love you book recommendations– I’ve read the Guernsey book and Charing Cross Road, but have never see the Geraldine Brooks book– is it new? I’ve read 3 of her other books. Putting it on my library list. Hope you are doing well. Any travels/excursions ahead?? Always fun to “talk” with you (do comments count as pen pals in a limited sort of way???) hugs hugs!

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    • Hi Rhonda! Must have been fun to have a cousin to exchange letters with. Foreign Correspondent has been out quite a while—1999, so it should be easy to find through your library. I don’t have any upcoming travels planned, laying low for the holidays, so far. Yes, I think blogging pals are pretty close to pen pals. Since we type our ‘letters’, perhaps we’re key pals? 🙂

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      • Ha ha! yep, no pens involved! I’ll look for Foreign Correspondent! thanks. Off to Christmas shop today– hope you December is coming along well there… hugs hugs!

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  20. I’d all but forgotten about the pen pals I had as a teenager. I used to look forward to their letters, and always replied straight away. It was wonderful. Thank you so much for bringing it all back!

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    • Happy this post brought back some fun memories for you, Margaret. Thanks for letting me know!

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  21. This is great fun, Marcia! I was around the same age as you when I saw an ad in the paper from a girl in Norway wanting a pen pal. What a thrill that was to receive her letters! But our dog felt the opposite. He regularly destroyed our mail, ripping a letter into tiny pieces. But that didn’t faze me, I just taped them all together. I believe (I hope!) I still have some of her letters in my scrapbook. The correspondence faded rather quickly, but a couple years ago I tried to find her on Facebook, with no luck. I admire how you and your pen pals have kept up your friendships for such a long time. I was a member of the online site “Global Pen Pals” for a while, and met some very nice people there. You’ve inspired me and maybe I’ll venture back in to finding a pen pal. Thanks so much, Marcia!

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    • What a great memory of taping together your pen pal letters. I wish you could have found her again, some people are so much easier to find than others, depending on how common their names are, of course. I’m very glad you enjoyed and found inspiration in this post. Thanks for letting me know!

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  22. Great post!

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