By Julia Alvarez
Yearling Book, 2009
“It should be easier being a Mexican than being an alien from outer space.” –Tyler
“America is a whole hemisphere, north and south. We are all-American! Raices mexicanas y flores norteamericanas… a bouquet with Mexican roots and North American flowers.” –Mari
"It’s not wrong in the eyes of God. Sometimes, a country has these laws that have nothing to do with what’s right or what’s best for most of the people involved.” –Tyler’s Dad
Julia Alvarez is best known for her adult books HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENT and IN THE TIME OF BUTTERFLIES, but there is another Julia that I am just discovering… the one that writes children books. She wrote RETURN TO SENDER as a way of helping both the children of Vermont and those of the Mexican migrant workers arriving to work the farms cope with their new situation. The name comes from the dragnet operation carried out by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2006. They named their operation Return to Sender, and the idea was to raid workplaces, seize undocumented workers and send them back to their home countries. And that is the world in which Tyler and Mari live.
RETURN TO SENDER is written for 8-10 year olds, but it is a wonderful, poignant, emotional book that will satisfy and engage all ages. It is the story of Tyler, who is scared that his family will have to leave the only home they’ve ever known when his father gets hurt and can’t continue to work their Vermont farm. It’s the story of Mari, whose family hides in fear of being separated or worse yet, being sent back to Mexico and poverty. These two families come together to save the farm and build a home.
But there are adjustments on all sides, as both families live in fear of discovery by the authorities, as Tyler adjusts to his patriot dad breaking the law, as Mari struggles to help raise her sisters since her mother has gone missing after a trip with a coyote, as the whole town struggles with the question of undocumented workers and struggling farms.
During these struggles, Tyler and Mari become friends. It is they who discover that friendship has no borders. Because when the authorities do finally raid the farm and capture Mari’s parents and uncle, it is Tyler and Mari who join forces to bravely face the law to tell their story and hopefully change some hearts so people, especially lawmakers, realize that people are NOT excess baggage.
RETURN TO SENDER was selected as one of two winners of the 2010 Americas Award for Children and Young Adult's Literature, sponsored by the national Consortium for Latin American Studies Programs (CLASP). It also won the 2010 Pura Belpré Author Award presented by the American Library Association, and is on Oprah’s 2010 Kids Reading List.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Alvarez writes adult and children’s fiction. She lives in Vermont with her husband and is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College. Julia and her husband Bill started a sustainable farm-literacy center called Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic. To find out how to order their coffee, Café Alta Gracia, and maybe visit their farm, check out their website www.cafealtagracia.com. To find out more about Julia and her writing life, she suggests reading her book of essays, SOMETHING TO DECLARE.
QUESTIONS FOR BOOK DISCUSSION:
1) Why is Tyler mad at his parents even when they find workers to help save the farm?
2) Why doesn’t Tyler want to be Mari’s friend?
3) How do the three Marias help Tyler’s grandmother deal with her husband’s passing?
4) Why doesn’t the farm have a name?
5) Why is Tio Felipe a hero to his family even though he ran away from them?
6) What is the importance of the song “La Golondrina” to Mari?
7) Why does Mari write letters and secret-diary entries?
8) How are Mari’s classmates influenced by what happens to her and her family?
9) How does the farm finally get a name?
COMMENT: Please do leave me a comment and let me know your favorite Julia Alvarez book. And if you get a chance to read RETURN TO SENDER, do let me know what touched you most about Mari and Tyler's story. Happy Reading. Read Latino.