I loved having a pen pal as a kid, and I love when my kids write letters (or emails!) to their own pen pals! Writing to a pen-pal in another country can facilitate lifelong friendships- and at a minimum it creates a great learning experience that enhances social studies, geography, penmanship, and language skills. Read these kids’ books about pen pals, and the cross-cultural discoveries and friendships they make with their pen pals from across the globe. And then: use this list to get your own pen pal!
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Dear Juno by Soyung Pak. This very sweet book details the exchange of pictures and letters between Juno (living in the US) and his grandmother (living in Korea). I like this book for little kids because it shows that even if you don’t know how to write yet, you can be a pen-pal sending pictures. This would be a great introduction for little kids to send letters to their own grandparents! (ages 4-8)
Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw. Elliot is from the US and Kailash lives in India, and they exchange pictures and postcards that show glimpses of their lives that are similar, but have different details. This works really well as a read aloud, and kids revel in the details of the illustrations. (ages 4-9)
A Pen-Pal for Max by Gloria Rand. A boy in Chile slips a note into a box of grapes, that is sent to the US. When a little girl finds the note, she writes back and they become pen-pals. After Max’s town and school are hit by an earthquake, he gets a surprise from his pen-pal. I love the friendship between the children! (ages 5-9)
Dear Primo, A Letter to my Cousin by Duncan Tonatiuh. Before anything, you have to check out this incredible Mexican author/illustrator- I LOVE his style! In this book, cousins are writing to each other from urban US to rural Mexico. Like the other books, we appreciate the similarities (they like to play outside) and the differences (jumping in the leaves vs playing amongst the cacti). I am saving this title for my ESL kids, who will identify with BOTH of the cousins. (ages 6-9)
Molly Gets a Goat by Megan Atwood. This book does not cross international cultures, but it does reflect a cross-cultural pen-pal relationship. In this case, the friends are two girls from the US: one from a rural farm, and the other in a big city. The girls each have their own set of challenges and adventures, and share emails and even switch places for a day. (ages 6-9)
Extra Credit by Andrew Clements. When Abby has to do extra credit to pass English class, she gets a pen-pal from rural Afghanistan. In this chapter book, she and Sadeed explore cultural differences, and learn about their own communities as well. (I list this in my post on chapter books with Asian characters). (ages 9-12)
Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. This chapter book is written in the form of letters between an immigrant from India who lives in NYC, and Kentucky coal miner’s son. Though their lives are seemingly different, they develop a relationship and find a lot of common ground in their struggles. I especially like how they share their different experiences, while the story builds around their friendship.
I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Martin Ganda, Caitlin Alifirenka, and Liz Welch. This is the coolest true story!! The memoir beings describing two young teens: a typical, suburban teen in the US, and a teen in Zimbabwe who is at the top of his class, but is trying to help his very impoverished family survive. When they begin writing, their differences make it almost impossible to understand each others’ lives, families, and cultures. But soon their friendship develops so deeply, we see how Caitlin helps her struggling friend out of poverty. I will warn you that I did cry when reading this, but it is such a phenomenal story of a global friendship (ages 12+)