Pick Up That Pen

Today is National Pen Pal Day.

I didn’t have a pen pal as a child, but years ago, while researching a book on lighthouses, I began a long correspondence with a lighthouse keeper. Though I had a computer and easy access to email by then, we kept in touch the old-fashioned way – with letters sent by mail. That process – writing and mailing the letters and then eagerly waiting for her to reply – took me back to childhood and pre-computer days when we relied on physical letters instead of emails and texts to keep in touch with out-of-town friends and family. A bit like how it was when pen pals first began.

Pen pals have been around for a long time. They began during the 1930s when a society called the Student Letter Exchange was formed so young students from different countries could connect through letters, mainly to learn about each other’s cultures. The pen pals were strangers, and the relationship was generally limited to letters, though occasionally, pen pals would meet. That’s how it was for Canadian Ruth Magee, who began a pen pal friendship with Brit Beryl Richmond in 1939. They’ve met twice over the years: once in 1986 and again in 2009. And their pen pal friendship continues today.

Pen pals, both real and imagined, have infused popular culture.

In 1997 Australian author Geraldine Brooks wrote Foreign Correspondence, a memoir about her childhood pen pals in Australia and overseas, and her travels as an adult searching for the people they’d become. 

In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown tries to write to a pen pal using a fountain pen, but when that doesn’t work, he switches to a pencil and refers to his pen pal as a pencil pal. And in the film adaptation, Charlie Brown’s pen pal issue has a happy ending when he becomes friends with his little red-haired dream girl.

In the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks develop a pen pal email relationship, unaware that they’re also business rivals. You’ve Got Mail was based on Shop Around the Corner, a 1940s film also focusing on a pen pal relationship.

These days, pen pal relationships are more likely to take place by email than snail mail, though there are a few groups dedicated to matching pen pals who want to connect through physical letters. These include the Letter Writers Alliance and a dedicated Facebook group called the Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals.

Happy writing!

Books on Bullying

October is National Bullying Awareness Month. Given that the first month of school is behind us and routines have been established, for kids who are victims of school yard bullying that means the bullying pattern is probably underway by now too. Books can’t eliminate bullying – I know that – but a good story may provide enlightenment to bullies themselves, as well as bystanders caught up in peer pressure. Equally important, victims often benefit from stories, gleaning insights, coping strategies and much-needed comfort and support. Here are some books on bullying for young and not-so-young readers.

For the picture book crowd:

I Didn’t Stand Up by Lucy Falcone; illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon

Noni Says No by Heather Hartt-Sussman; illustrated by Genevieve Cote

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill; illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Dear Bully of Mine by Vicki Fraser; illustrated by Cody McGrath and Sean McGrath


For older readers:

Queen of the Toilet Bowl and Camp Disaster by Frieda Wishinsky

Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Bullies Rule by Monique Polak

Cabin Girl by Kristin Butcher

In Plain Sight by Laura Langston

Some Girls Are by Courtenay Summers

To This Day by Shane Koyczan

Dear Bully – Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories by Megan Kelley Hall

Summertime . . .

It’s the season for backyard BBQs and camping under the stars . . . for walking barefoot on the grass . . . for buying lemonade from the pop up stand down the street . . . and for friends who come to stay.

We’ve had several sets of out-of-town company this summer and I’m so grateful. Life’s busy. It’s easy to put things off. So when people I love come to visit I’m always thankful they took the time. One set of friends was in the middle of getting their house ready to sell but decided to come and spend a weekend with us (we did mention tequila in the invite). Another set of friends was flying from Ontario to BC and their primary destination was the Okanagan. They decided to detour to Victoria for an in-person catch up.

These are friendships that go back decades, to my teens and early twenties. We’ve kept in touch over the years, sometimes sporadically and sometimes more regularly, but whenever we reconnect in person, it’s like no time at all has passed. There’s an incredible gift in that, a joy in having a kind of shorthand with a person, a sense that you  know the core of each other and you like what’s there. And though we connected this time in summer, when the living and the laughter both come easy, both of these friendships have been through some figurative winter storms. However, like any true friendship manages to do, they not only weathered the storms but became stronger for them.

A few minutes after waving good-bye to Keith and Carol-Anne, I happened to wander onto Twitter where I saw an agent calling for submissions. One of her biggest wishes: to find stories where friendships are front and center.  Stories where friendships aren’t the afterthoughts of our lives but the cornerstones. Where differences are respected and even celebrated. Where pure loving kindness prevails . . . stories where friendships last and last and last.

From summer to winter and back to summer again.

Because while it is the season for backyard BBQs . . . for lemonade stands and for walking barefoot on the grass . . . friendship – honest, to-the-bone real friendship – knows no season at all.