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Books About Letters: "Return to Sender"

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to talk letters with a group of students at The Brookfield Library in Brookfield, Connecticut. Thanks to Abbey, Brookfield's Youth Services Librarian, who invited me to participate in the Brookfield Community read of Julia Alvarez's "Return to Sender".

In this Middle-Grade book letters play a complex role taking readers into family relationships, immigration issues, and young friendship. This review was tough to write! This is a complex read with nuances and moments that had my heart at times in my throat. But we have to believe that in order for our future generations to undo our mistakes, they have to learn about them. And what better than a Book About Letters to do so? Read on for my review.

When Tyler's family farm in Vermont is at risk of closing, his parents decide to bring in help. The help comes in the form of three Mexican brothers. Along with the three brothers, come three little girls -- daughters of the eldest brother. The girls have not seen their mother for almost a year, after her attempt to unsuccessfully re-enter the U.S. Told over the course of a year following the death of Tyler's Grandfather and his father's injury, Tyler and the eldest daughter Mari must learn to navigate uncertainty, grief, compassion, and empathy together.

This story is set in the mid-2000s and Alvarez's style of writing is compelling. Her understanding of family juxtapose to outside forces creates a pace and a structure that carries the story. Craft is at play in "Return to Sender". Told from alternating perspectives of Tyler and Mari, we are treated to beautiful letters by Mari which writes to her missing mother -- and her Uncle, eventually as well. In those letters and diary entires Mari processes her surroundings in thoughtful meditation. Mari's letters and diary entries are the backbone of this book.

It is my belief that letters are not just a way for us to connect to the past but a way to interrogate the present and dream about the future. This is a book that parent and middle-school child should read together. Reading this with a student will open the door for necessary yet difficult conversations. Alvarez's teen protagonists struggle with what many adults ignore and sharing this with a younger reader could be powerful.

Thanks again to Abbey for inviting me along to talk letters and "Return to Sender" with the students. It was a delight and I am very excited to know younger folks are still getting jazzed about letters and letter writing.

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