guest post by Alice Blumenthal McGinty, author of My Israel and Me
I’ve always enjoyed exploring diverse topics in my writing. That includes anything from the sea to biographies of interesting people, to other countries, cultures, and foods (especially foods!). To me, it’s about curiosity. I am curious about a lot of things! I love to learn, dig deep, and share what I know in a creative way, using language to connect with people. That’s why I write.
In my recent book, My Israel and Me (Kalaniot Books) with illustrations by Rotem Teplow, we are introduced to many different people with diverse traditions. While reading a book is a great way to learn about different cultures, you might want to get to know people and their cultures more personally. Writing to a pen pal is one way to make this connection.
Being a pen pal is like being a writer. You get to know a new person and use written language to connect with them. Not only do you get to know that person, you can learn about the place where they’re from, whether it’s in the USA or in another country, and what life is like there. There’s so much to find out and so much to share about yourself as well! I had a couple of pen pals when I was growing up. I loved the excitement of receiving new letters from them. Now I have friends who live all over the world and enjoy getting to know them and keeping up with their lives.
Here are some resources to help you find a pen pal, and prompts and games to help you get to know each other and have a great time in the process!
Finding a Pen Pal
Of course, it is always good if you can find a pen pal through friends and family, but that’s not always possible. The internet is another place to search. Here are a few sites to try:
This site really puts an emphasis on finding the users a perfect match. It asks for your background to set you up with someone with similar interests.
This website focuses more on international interactions and practicing other languages. There are options for snail mail, face-to-face meetings, or email.
This site has extensive security measures. It filters for strictly kid-friendly content, profile pictures must be approved, and you can block users or entire countries.
A note on safety: if you end up finding your pen pal online, you’ll want to chat with them a little to make sure you feel comfortable before exchanging mailing addresses. Parents should definitely supervise this process with children.
Letter Writing Prompts
- One thing I wonder about is…
One of the most fun ways to get to know your pen pal is to ask questions. You say you can’t think of anything to ask? Here’s a trick – look around you. Use your powers of observation. What do you see? A computer? A table? Some books. Next, get in touch with your wonderer. That’s the part of you who asks questions. You know it’s there! Start with a question word… who, what, when, where, why, how. Pick one and use it to begin a question. For example, how many books do you have? Who sits at your table during meals? Where did you get your computer? Once you get going, you’ll think of LOTS of things to wonder about. Pick one or two each time you write to your pen pal. Ask them to do the same.
- Three why’s
Here’s where you can exercise your wonderer even more. Why questions lead to understanding. When you ask three follow up why questions in a row, you dig deep into your curiosity and find out more than you’d ever imagined. Start with question one to ask your pen pal. For example, if I were your pen pal, maybe you’d ask me, 1. Why did your parents name you Alice? I would answer, because I am named after my great grandmother, Alice. Then in your next letter, you would ask a follow-up “why” question, like, 2. Why are you named after your great-grandmother, Alice? I would answer, because in Jewish tradition we are named after a relative who has passed away. In your next letter, you ask a third follow up “why” question, like, 3. Why do you have a tradition to name children after a relative who has passed away? I would answer, to honor the relatives who have come before me. See how much you know about me and my traditions now? Can you go past 3 why’s? Try five if you dare!
- What if?
This is a fun one to spur you and your pen pal’s creativity! Make up a what if question for your pen pal. What if you could fly? Where would you go? What if you became invisible? What would you do? What if questions can take your imagination where ever you want, and then some. Enjoy the journey!
Pen Pal Games
- Different but the Same
One pen pal comes up with a category – ie. breakfasts, homes, shoes. (use your powers of observation if you need help with ideas!) Now, each pen pal describes the things in that category (ie. types of breakfasts) in their country. Once you’ve read each other’s descriptions, see if you can each list 3 things that are different about the breakfasts in each of your countries and three things that are the same. When you’re done, the other pen pal can choose a category and you can play again.
- How many?
This is a game of lists. One pen pal picks a category and each of you tries to list as many things as possible in that category. If you like, you can make it a competition to see who can get the most items on your lists. Then the other pen pal picks a category and you can begin again. Here are a few ideas to get you started: things you are thankful for in your life, people who have had an influence on you, places that are important to you, things you’ve learned about in the past month/year. You will get to know things about your pen pal and yourself as you play!
- Continue the story
One pen pal begins a story by writing a sentence or two. In the next letter, the next pen pal continues the story with another sentence or two. It’s so much fun to see where the story goes! You never know!
I hope your new pen pal becomes a friend—to share feelings, experiences, and stories, and to give each of you glimpses into a different world.
About Alice Blumental McGinty
Alice Blumenthal McGinty delights in igniting imaginations. As the award-winning author of almost 50 children’s books, she makes fiction and non-fiction accessible, engaging, and fun.
Her books include Kirkus’ Best of 2020, A Story for Small Bear, The Sea Knows, a nonfiction ode to the sea, 2019 Jr. LibraryGuild Selection, The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney, 2019 Northern Lights Book Award Winner (food category) Pancakes to Parathas: Breakfast Around the World, the 2015 Sydney Taylor Notable book, Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons, and the 2014 South Asia Book Award honor, Gandhi: A March To the Sea. Eight upcoming titles include The Water Lady (April, 2021) and Bathe The Cat (Fall, 2021). A frequent presenter at schools and conferences, Alice was awarded the 2017 Prairie State Award for Excellence in Writing for Children. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.