Letters About Literature: Dear Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda

We continue our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners for 2016 were announced last month.

Nearly 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative, which aims to instill a lifelong love of reading in the nation’s youth and to engage and nurture their passion for literature

There was a tie for the national honor award for Level 2 (grades 7-8). Following is one of the winning letters written by Hannah Huang of Iowa, who wrote to Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, authors of “I Will Always Write Back.”

Dear Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda,

The chaos theory talks about how small fluctuations in a complicated, interconnected system, like weather, can end up causing startling consequences. It’s often illustrated by the butterfly effect – how something as insignificant as a butterfly fluttering its wings might eventually cause a hurricane in a different part of the world.

I’m no heroic butterfly – I’m a very normal girl. I go to school, do my homework, socialize with friends, and read a lot. One of the books I happened to read was your collaborative memoir – the story of two pen pals, one in a suburban Pennsylvania town, the other in the slums of Zimbabwe. “I Will Always Write Back” demonstrates the chaos theory perfectly: how small actions and choices can lead to astonishing results.

Caitlin, your chapters were like reading a page out of my own life story. Just like what I am right now, you began as an ordinary American girl. At 12 years old, when you chose to have a pen pal from Zimbabwe, you said, “I didn’t know it then – how could I have? – but that moment would change my life.”

From a simple class assignment came a friendship that bridged an ocean and changed both of your lives. But what would have happened if you hadn’t chosen Zimbabwe? What if Martin hadn’t been the top student in his class, therefore earning the honor of being your pen pal? You wouldn’t have learned about what life was like outside of a first-world Country, “…a typical twelve-year-old American girl, far more interested in what I should wear to school than what I might learn there,” is how you described yourself before your friendship with Martin. And Martin, instead of being able to attend an American university, would probably still be mired in Zimbabwe. Small choices lead to unimaginable consequences that one couldn’t have dreamed of at the time of the decision.

And that was when I had my epiphany. I used to think that my daily actions and choices had no real effect on the world at large. I mean, what could a young girl possibly do to change the world? But after reading this book, I realized that I am still able to have an impact on the small part of the world that I interact with. With this in mind, I started to volunteer my time with the preschoolers at church and my local food pantry. Teaching children a new word. Showing them how to use scissors. Giving out food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Seeing the smiles break out when I said, “Take as many tomatoes as you want.” These are small things, but I hope that they’ve affected at least a few people’s lives.

Martin, you changed Caitlin’s life, too. It might seem like Caitlin was doing all the giving and you were doing all the taking, but you gave Caitlin something valuable, too. Through your letters, you opened her eyes (and mine as well) by showing what life is like in countries that are not as lucky as America. Your family’s only furniture was a single mattress, and your “house” was a single room shared with another family. I couldn’t even imagine living in such cramped quarters. And I used to think that my own personal bedroom, equipped with a desk, bed, and a closet filled with clothes, was sparse and small.

As I continued to read, each chapter of yours increased my awareness of how naive I was. For example, I expected three fresh meals served up to me everyday day. If my mother was out and I had to make my own dinner, I would gripe about it incessantly, even with our refrigerator fully stocked and at my disposal. When I read about your family struggling even to buy sadza, the commeal mush that was your daily subsistence, I felt ashamed of myself. And while I had three pairs of boots and a different pair of sneakers allotted for running, tennis, PE, and wearing to school, I was concerned with their color, style, and brand. I realized how superficial things they were to be concerned with when I found out that you didn’t even own a single pair of shoes.

There are things in life that seem so trivial that it’s easy to forget how blessed and lucky I am to have them. I used to think of good food, a warm bed, and a roof over my head as some sort of inalienable right. I’ve since realized how mistaken I was in this notion after reading about what your life was like in Zimbabwe. It makes me all the more grateful for what I have, and when I say that I’m thankful for something at Thanksgiving, or even on a regular day, I really, truly, mean it now.

And finally, “I Will Always Write Back” taught me how to be a better friend. Both of you went above and beyond the call of duty to sustain your friendship. Caitlin, you selflessly sent your babysitting money to Martin so he could stay in school. And Martin, you were determined to continue writing to Caitlin after your school stopped financing the cost of your correspondence, even carrying luggage for travelers just to scrape together the money needed to buy the stamps to put on the envelope. You both showed me that it is worth every little bit of effort expended to keep a friendship going. Now, I strive to emulate that type of admirable loyalty in my friendships as well. Over winter break, I emailed friends that I hadn’t communicated with in years, discovering in the process that we still remembered the same treasured memories and inside jokes. And I really try my best now to look beyond the surface of an individual. The old me used to write people off if they weren’t made of the same mold I was, but now I have become friends with individuals of different ages, genders, and personalities. Your book showed me that inside every person, no matter how different compared to me, is the potential for a life-altering friendship.

Caitlin and Martin, you have taught me to open my eyes to the world around me, and ultimately, become a better person. Your unlikely friendship showed me how two people with very different nationalities, beliefs, cultures, and aspirations, can change each other’s lives. The world suddenly becomes a more vivid place when we recognize contrasts and embrace them. That is, after all, what makes color TV so much better than black and white. Both of you have helped me rethink the place I hold in this world and what results from the smallest of actions. I have much to thank you for. I daresay your friendship – a single butterfly flapping in the air – has caused a small tempest elsewhere in the hearts and minds of your readers.

Hannah Huang

You can read all the winning letters here, including the winning letters from previous years.

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