This is my 3rd year as an author sponsor for Multicultural Children's Book Day. I'm always happy and proud to be part of this wonderful, informative event. This year, I signed up to be a reviewer as well. Author Francesca Forrest supplied a copy of her YA novel Pen Pal for me to read in exchange for an honest review
Pen Pal is a story about a 12-year-old girl named Em who lives in an unusual place, a village of floating homes just off-shore in Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico. She puts a message in a bottle, introducing herself, and sets it afloat. With a little intervention from nature, a friendly postmaster, and fate, the bottle winds up half-way around the world in the hands of an imprisoned activist named Kaya in an island country in the Pacific Ocean. The two write letters back and forth over the course of a year.
The novel is told primarily in letters, journal or diary entries, and some extra material like newspaper articles or emails. There isn't any outright narration. The chapters alternate POV from Em to Kaya. The majority of the plot is revealed in their journal entries.
I enjoyed this book. It is a very interesting and compelling read. Both Em and Kaya have intriguing stories, and I liked learning about both of their extremely different lifestyles and how they wind up helping each other when their situations become dire.
Em is impoverished, has a brother in jail, and lives in a makeshift home that floats on rubber tires. Her way of life is threatened by public opinion, local politics and hurricanes. People look down on the people from Mermaid's Hands (the name of her village) because of their chosen way of life and that her family and friends have a strong belief in the "seafather" who provides them with what they need from the ocean.
Kaya, on the other hand, is in her twenties. She is from an unnamed island (called W----- in the novel) where the classes of people are divided by lowlanders (wealthier and educated) verses the mountain people (poor and uneducated). The mountain people have a strong belief in their mythology and legends. Kaya is especially intelligent for a mountain girl and wins a scholarship to a lowlander school and then goes to college in America. But she is back home because she had a dream that the Lady of Ruby Lake (goddess of the island's volcano) wants her to organize a celebration for her. She comes home and does this, but the government sees the celebration as an act of insurgency and arrests her. She is imprisoned in an isolated temple protruding over the volcano.
It took me a bit to get into this novel. The reason being, I didn't know that Mermaid's Hands and the island Kaya was from were fictional at first. I thought, being a multicultural book, it was based on real places. It isn't clear for a long time in the book where these places are. It is well into the book before you learn Mermaid's Hands is near Mobile, Alabama. I thought it was off Louisiana up until that point. Also, it isn't until the final third of the book that we learn the island "W-----" is near Indonesia. Being that the characters are writing letters and journal entries, they don't actually describe themselves very much. I guessed, but wasn't sure, that Em was African American until it was made clear quite a bit into the story. Also, I didn't picture Kaya as Pacific Asian at first. I was imagining her as from somewhere like India or even Morocco.
There is no front or back matter in this book from the author discussing where her inspiration and research came from, and I wish there had been. A few chapters into the book, I went searching for "Mermaid's Hands" and came up empty. There is no such place. The closest thing to it is a place in Cambodia that I've seen on a CBS Sunday Morning special. I did wind up going to the author's website to learn more about why she wrote this novel. She has some good information there and artist renderings of Em and Kaya. I recommend visiting the site if you read this book.
Once I realized these places were from Forrest's imagination, I enjoyed the story as pure fiction and stopped trying to read more into it. The ending of the novel is tense and exciting and totally worth the wait. It is awesome to see female characters so courageous and forthright.
I will admit to getting frustrated with the occasional grammar hang-up. It only happened during Em's diary entries. I didn't mind the aints and double negatives, because she was from the South. It's just that her poor grammar and spelling weren't consistent. 90% of the time her grammar was spot on, making the times when she writes things like "could of" instead of "could have" look more like author error instead of a character thing. I feel like it either needed to be clear that Em had trouble with spelling and grammar by doing it all the time, every time, or it needed to be removed completely.
I know Pen Pal is targeted for Young Adult readers. It is fairly unusual to have a YA novel without any teenagers in it. While a teen reader could enjoy the book, especially if they are an avid reader, I feel like it is actually more of an adult novel like the way Secret Life of Bees, The Book Thief, or Kite Runner feature children but are actually not children's books. The story is pretty complex and requires the reader to apply their own knowledge to put all the puzzle pieces together.
Want to have a pen pal of your own?
As an environmentalist, I'm not a big fan of dropping bottles in the ocean. However, I am a big fan of letters in the mail. If you (or your students) would be interested in trying to get a pen pal, especially one from another country or culture, go to International Pen Friends. They have sign-up forms for individuals and full classes. They will match you with a recipient, and you can make a new friend.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.
Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.
Current Sponsors: MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include Scholastic, Barefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. Roman, Audrey Press, Candlewick Press, Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTV, Capstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle Swift, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee& Low Books, The Pack-n-Go Girls, Live Oak Media, Author Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books
Author Sponsors include: Karen Leggett Abouraya, Veronica Appleton, Susan Bernardo, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Delores Connors, Maria Dismondy, D.G. Driver, Geoff Griffin, Savannah Hendricks, Stephen Hodges, Carmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid Imani, Gwen Jackson, Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana Llanos, Natasha Moulton-Levy, Teddy O'Malley, Stacy McAnulty, Cerece Murphy, Miranda Paul, Annette Pimentel, Greg Ransom, Sandra Richards, Elsa Takaoka, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.
MCBD Links to remember:
MCBD site: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/
Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta
Free Kindness Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teachers-classroom-kindness-kit/
Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents: http://bit.ly/1sZ5s8i
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.