Reviews for Return to Sender

Booklist Reviews 2008 December #1
With quiet drama, Alvarez tells a contemporary immigration story through the alternating viewpoints of two young people in Vermont. After 11-year-old Tyler's father is injured in a tractor accident, the family is in danger of losing their dairy farm. Desperate for help, Tyler s family employs Mari s family, who are illegal migrant Mexican workers. Mari writes heartrending letters and diary entries, especially about Mamá, who has disappeared during a trip to Mexico to visit Mari's dying abuelita. Is Mamá in the hands of the border-crossing "coyotes"? Have they hurt her? Will Homeland Security (la migra) raid the farm? The plot is purposive, with messages about the historical connections between migrant workers today and the Indians displacement, the Underground Railroad, and earlier immigrants seeking refuge. But the young people s voices make for a fast read; the characters, including the adults, are drawn with real complexity; and the questions raised about the meaning of patriotism will spark debate. Copyright 2008 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2009 January
Understanding children caught between cultures

"If you live and pay attention," says writer Julia Alvarez, "life gives you so much to write about." Alvarez has indeed been paying attention. As a child, she and her family fled the Dominican Republic to escape the harsh dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (her father had secretly been involved in the underground). Many miles and many years later, she speaks from an office at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she is writer-in-residence and the author of books for both adults and children, such as the award-winning How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies and Something to Declare.

Her latest is Return to Sender, a novel for nine- to 12-year-olds about a sixth-grade boy on a Vermont farm who befriends the daughter of undocumented Mexican workers.

Alvarez and her husband live on their own small farm, along with cows, rabbits, chickens and a new barn. She speaks on the day before America's presidential election, prompting her to muse, "When I get to vote, I get weepy. I know what it costs to get to this. Members of my family died so I could have this day."

When 10-year-old Alvarez and her family arrived in New York City in 1960, books and later writing became her ticket to freedom. "We had landed in this land that I had always heard was the home of the free and the brave, but I didn't find it very friendly at all," Alvarez remembers. "The kids on the playground called me 'spic,' they made fun of my accent, and they told me to go back to where I had come from."

Salvation came in the form of reading, guided by teachers and a librarianand reading was something new. "I came from an oral culture," she says. "I was surrounded by the world's greatest storytellers, but we were not readers. I never saw my mother or father reading a book."

Eventually, Alvarez became a writer, realizing that there were some stories only she could tell. She says her books usually start with what she calls "the pebble in my shoe." "It's something that I try to shake," she elaborates, "but I keep going back over it. It's usually something that has unsettled me."

Return to Sender began when a farmer brought a Mexican farm worker in to see her husband, an ophthalmologist. Alvarez and her husband soon discovered that undocumented Mexicans were doing most of the milking on the dairy farms in their county. They met some of these workers, and Alvarez was asked to help with a schoolgirl who didn't know enough English to communicate with her teachers or classmates.

Certainly Alvarez could relateon more than one level. She notes: "It's not just down in the border states that [immigration] is an issue. It's reached Vermont, and it's so much the issue of our times: mass movements of people from one place to another. As we globalize, people become aware of other opportunities and possibilities, and want to create a new story for themselvesand therefore leave everything to remake their story."

As Alvarez began to help out in the classroom, she realized that not only was the Mexican girl disoriented, but so were her classmates. Over time the children befriended each other, until the girl suddenly returned to Mexico with an aunt, while her parents continued to work in Vermont.

"The kids were really traumatized that their classmate had disappeared," Alvarez explains. "This doesn't happen in their United States, that somebody disappears because they're not supposed to be here, and their parents could be rounded up and they would be deported and put in holding. All of this can be very troubling stuff in fourth and fifth grade. And I thought that we need a story to understand what's happening to us."

Return to Sender tells this tale from both sides, using the voices of Tyler, a Vermont farm boy, and Mari, who was born in Mexico and now lives in a trailer as her dad and uncle work on Tyler's family farm. Tyler's father was injured in a tractor accident and can no longer handle the daily chores by himself. Mari's mother has been missing for nearly a year, and Mari and her sisters aren't sure if she is dead or alive. Their mother returned to Mexico when her own mother was ill, but she hasn't been heard from since attempting to secretly cross the border to return to the U.S.

Does Alvarez worry about introducing such heavy concepts to young readers?

"I'm not just a writer," she replies. "I've also been an educator for three decades. And a story protects us in a way. In a sense, it's a safe world in which to consider what's going to hit you broadside in the real world. You give kids the things that are bombarding them in their real lives, but it's within a safe context. It gives them a way to navigate through the world."

Alvarez navigated herself through many different parts of the U.S. early in her career, working as what she calls a "migrant writer," teaching poetry wherever grant funding was available, including Kentucky, California, Delaware, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Now that she's settled in New England, she still travels to the Dominican Republic about six times a year, to see family and to visit Caf Alta Gracia, a 60-acre coffee farm that she and her husband own.

"The mountains here in Vermont remind me of the mountains of the Dominican Republic where we have our farm," she says. "We don't have winter there, of course, but the lush greenness of the mountains and a certain kind of accessible mentalitythere's something that's very simpatico about the Vermont culture and my Dominican culture."

Although Julia Alvarez has found a place to call home, she continues to write about people caught between cultures. "Displacement is just part of the human story," she says. "You don't have to be an immigrant to write about that, because we've all felt it." Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.

Horn Book Guide Reviews 2009 Fall
After an accident injures Tyler's father, their farm is in danger of folding--until a family of Mexican immigrants (some illegal) comes to help. Tyler befriends Mari, the oldest daughter, and helps the family reunite with Mari's mother, to whom Mari writes heartfelt letters. The various relationships are complicated and nuanced, and the issues Alvarez raises will give readers pause. Copyright 2009 Horn Book Guide Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2008 November #2
Tyler is the son of generations of Vermont dairy farmers. Mari is the Mexican-born daughter of undocumented migrant laborers whose mother has vanished in a perilous border crossing. When Tyler's father is disabled in an accident, the only way the family can afford to keep the farm is by hiring Mari's family. As Tyler and Mari's friendship grows, the normal tensions of middle-school boy-girl friendships are complicated by philosophical and political truths. Tyler wonders how he can be a patriot while his family breaks the law. Mari worries about her vanished mother and lives in fear that she will be separated from her American-born sisters if la migra comes. Unashamedly didactic, Alvarez's novel effectively complicates simple equivalencies between what's illegal and what's wrong. Mari's experience is harrowing, with implied atrocities and immigration raids, but equally full of good people doing the best they can. The two children find hope despite the unhappily realistic conclusions to their troubles, in a story which sees the best in humanity alongside grim realities. Though it lacks nuance, still a must-read. (Fiction. 9-11) Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Media Connection Reviews 2009 May/June
Tyler?s family is having hard times?his grandfather has recently died, and his father was seriously injured in a farm accident. It looks as if the family will have to leave their Vermont farm, which has been in the family for generations. To help them, Tyler?s father hires Mexican immigrants, a family with three daughters Tyler?s age. Tyler?s friendship is tested when he finds out that the Cruz family has entered the United States illegally. The mother has been missing since returning to Mexico to be with her ailing mother, and has fallen into the hands of smugglers who demand a high price for her return. The reader will experience the conflict of Tyler and the Cruz family as they face the plight of illegal aliens. The novel is an excellent curriculum tool. Spanish is used throughout the book; geography and history are explored, as Mexican customs are explained; plus there are great writing opportunities to discuss friendship, and a study of American democracy. Each chapter ends with a letter written by the oldest daughter, letters unable to be sent due to fear of disclosing the family?s location. This very timely novel belongs in every collection. Highly Recommended. Jo Drudge, Educational Reviewer, Rome City, Indiana ¬ 2009 Linworth Publishing, Inc.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 November #2

After Tyler's father's accident, his family hires undocumented Mexican workers in a last-ditch effort to keep their Vermont farm. Despite his reservations, Tyler soon bonds with a worker's daughter, who is in his sixth-grade class. His problems seem small compared to Mari's: her family fears deportation, and her mother has been missing since re-entering the States months ago. While this novel is certainly issue-driven, Alvarez (Before We Were Free) focuses on her main characters, mixing in Mexican customs and the touching letters that Mari writes to her mother, grandmother and even the U.S. president. Readers get a strong sense of Tyler's growing maturity, too, as he navigates complicated moral choices. Plot developments can be intense: Mari's uncle lands in jail, and her mother turns out to have been kidnapped and enslaved during her crossing. Some characters and sentiments are over-the-top, but readers will be moved by small moments, as when Tyler sneaks Mari's letter to her imprisoned uncle, watching as the man puts his palm on the glass while Tyler holds up the letter from the other side. A tender, well-constructed book. Ages 8-12. (Jan.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2009 February

Gr 4-7--Sixth-grader Tyler Paquette lives in a dairy-farming community in Vermont. His father was injured in a tractor accident and must now turn to undocumented Mexican laborers to run the farm. Thus, a trailer on the property soon becomes home to the Cruz family--sixth-grader Mari, her two younger sisters, father, and two uncles, all needing work to survive and living with fear of la migra. They have had no word on Mari's mother, missing now for several months. Tyler and Mari share an interest in stargazing, and their extended families grow close over the course of one year with holiday celebrations and shared gatherings. Third-person chapters about Tyler alternate with Mari's lengthy, unmailed letters to her mother and diary entries. Touches of folksy humor surface in the mismatched romance of Tyler's widowed Grandma and cranky Mr. Rossetti. When "coyotes" contact Mr. Cruz and set terms for his wife's freedom, Tyler secretly loans the man his savings, then renegotiates a promised birthday trip in order to accompany Mari to North Carolina to help rescue her abused mother. When immigration agents finally raid the farm and imprison both Cruz parents, it signals an end to the "el norte" partnership, but not the human connections. This timely novel, torn right from the newspaper headlines, conveys a positive message of cooperation and understanding.--Susan W. Hunter, Riverside Middle School, Springfield, VT

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