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Pen Pal

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  145 Ratings  ·  57 Reviews
Em is a twelve-year-old girl in a floating community off the Gulf Coast. Kaya is a political activist in a terrifying prison. They are pen pals. Em's wistful message in a bottle finds its way to Kaya, imprisoned above the molten lava of the Ruby Lake. Both are living precarious lives, at the mercy of societal, natural, and perhaps supernatural forces beyond their control. ...more
Paperback, 354 pages
Published December 14th 2013 by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform (first published December 2nd 2013)
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Sherwood Smith
Reread. Definitely one of the best books I read last year.

Em Baptiste, twelve years old, throws a bottled letter into the Gulf Sea. It ends up at an island on the western edge of the Pacific rim, in the hands of a woman suspended over a volcano as a political prisoner. Kaya, lonely and desperately worried, writes back, and so begins an unlikely correspondence that has consequences rippling outward.

Em lives in Mermaid’s Hands, a small community of floating houseboats rising and falling on the gul
Feb 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Pen Pal is the sort of book that people say “defies categorization”. Its settings are just this side of fantastical, its tone almost magical; it certainly doesn’t feel out of place in the Indie Fantasy Bundle where I encountered it. And yet, it takes place firmly within a world very much like our own, with the Internet and global news and international tensions, where those who live outside the mainstream are viewed with suspicion, and where most of the magics are the fleeting, everyday sorts we ...more
Jun 23, 2017 added it
An utterly engrossing read, I tore through it in one day because I couldn't bear to put it down. The ending felt abrupt to me, but I think that was intentional: life doesn't wrap up with a neat, tidy bow, and the way this story ends keeps me pondering it and mulling it over in my mind and heart, whereas otherwise I might have closed the book in satisfaction and moved on.

I love the way mythology and magic is woven so naturally into the story, never overt or blatant, but shimmering in the backgrou
Precious Joy
Oct 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: firstreads
I received this book from GoodReads' FirstReads program.

A casual exchange between Em, a 12 yr-old girl residing in a floating community off the Gulf Coast and Kaya, a political activist who is imprisoned over a volcano, that turned into something big, grand even- a friendship that is bound by loyalty and faith- Pen Pal is definitely a read that’s going to stay with me for a long time.

Em sends a message in a bottle that the universe so intricately orchestrated to end up at the hands of Kaya. Bein
Rachel Brown
A young girl in a floating community off the Gulf Coast throws a message in a bottle into the ocean, and it makes its way across the world, to a political prisoner in solitary confinement on a platform suspended over a lake of fire.

Letters travel back and forth, through the ocean and the post office and fishing boats, through mass media and tied to the leg of a crow. Em, the girl, confides in Kaya her worries about her older brother, who’s in jail for theft. Kaya, the activist, tries to explain
Jun 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I had the great privilege of reading Pen Pal in manuscript form and fell in love with it. I don't know when last I read a book that moved me across such a range of emotions.*

Because of my strong initial response to Pen Pal, I was actually afraid to read it in book form. I was afraid I wouldn't be as wowed the second time around, knowing the denouement.

I needn't have worried. The book had just as much charm the second and third times that I read it. The beauty and power of Pen Pal lies not so mu
Feb 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Endearing, magical and endlessly imaginative- a perfect example of the compassion we should all strive to emulate.

'Pen Pal' is the story of two girls from less than ordinary situations who are brought together by a massage in a bottle. Is there a more fantastic way to make a friend? I certainly can't think of one.

I am a huge fan of anything that paints women/girls in a strong and positive light- where they can be seen as capable of changing the world. To my immeasurable delight, this novel enco
Em is a child of water, living in a floating community on the Gulf coast. Kaya is a child of fire, imprisoned half a world away above a volcano.

They need each other, though they don't at first know it.

Em believes in the Seafather who watches over her people. Kaya isn't sure whether she believes in the Ruby Lady, but she was arrested for holding a ceremony for her, just the same.

When Em's wistful message in a bottle reaches Kaya, their two stories become entwined, and the result is a numinous sto
Mar 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Magical demirealism at its finest, this story is a delight to the animistically inclined. Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, I have a particular wistfulness towards Mermaid's Hands... I would have loved for there to be such a place near my coast. (So much more magical than what we did have! But I still appreciated the nod to local traditions that were there.) As a child, I too tried the message-in-a-bottle thing, and I did get a reply, but with less spectacular results. But I think my favorite t ...more
Matthew Olson
Feb 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
I enjoyed the plot of this book. There was just enough drama to keep things going.

Unfortunately, the style of this book didn't work. There are letters and journal entries from various characters. While each character did have a unique voice, I did not appreciate all the deliberate grammar and spelling mistakes (at least I assume them to be deliberate). Also this style took away from the drama and got in the way of the story. I wanted to quit reading so many times.

One other thing about the style
Terri-Lynne DeFino
Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest, is YA in the way The Book Thief is YA, in the way The Giver is YA. It is YA of the best kind. It crosses genre, and it crosses age boundaries. It's a book anyone will pick up and be changed by. The characters are fully realized, the story never wobbles. The writing walks that so-difficult-to-find line of invisibility, in that the reader never feels the author poking her nose into the story. It belongs to the characters. And while the prose are pristine, they are ne ...more
Jul 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book works on so many levels. The characterizations are multi-faceted and believable--most especially in the main characters, Em and Kaya, but also in the supporting ones--and their circumstances are at once unusual and engaging. The two cultures Francesca Forrest constructs here, both besieged by the modern world, each with its own unique mythology, have commonalities that help bind Em and Kaya in friendship. Yet, despite the way the narrative switches back and forth between the two, it's ...more
Mar 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Beautifully and powerfully written.
Apr 21, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Melancholy, powerful story told in a surprisingly vivid epistolary style.
Christina Vasilevski
This review is reposted from

Sometimes, a book comes along that satisfies you completely — its characters make your heart happy, its themes make your soul happy, and its prose makes your head happy.

These books are rare. Pen Pal is one of them.

The central conceit is simple: Em is a young girl living in Mermaid’s Hands, a squatter’s community on the Gulf Coast, who sets a message in a bottle adrift hoping to find
Jodi Woody
Pen Pal is part of a boxed set, "Light in the Darkness". Let me just say I haven't been disappointed in any of the books in this set so far and I am over hallway through. This is a great alternate reality/distopian-ish story. I really liked the writing style. The story is told in letters and diary entrees. I give it five stars. There is no swearing or sexual content. I can recommend for teens and up.
Aug 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing

One of the best books I've ever read.

These are the first lines:

Dear person who finds my message,
I live in a place called Mermaid's Hands. All our houses rest on the mud when the tide is out, but when it comes in, they rise right up and float.
They're all roped together, so we don't lose anyone. I like Mermaid's Hands, but sometimes I wish I could unrope our house and see where it might float to. . .

Em is the child who places this letter into a bottle and tosses it into the sea. Mermaid's Hands is
Sep 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Pen Pal defies classification. If pressed, I'd call it literary young adult, but it's more than that. There are some fantasy elements, mostly in the form of folk magic, but the whole book has a slightly dreamlike quality, in spite of the urgency of the story. Em is a thirteen-year-old girl living in Mermaids Hands, a floating village off the gulf coast. She sends out a message in a bottle, which eventually reaches Kaya, a young political prisoner being held in a hut on a platform suspended over ...more
Terri M.
Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest caught my eye in Toronto in 2015. The idea of pen pals connecting and inspiring each other to achieve great things sounded promising, but in the end it didn’t quite deliver.

Since the story is told in via the journals Em and Kaya write as well as the letters they exchange it was hard to gain a true outside perspective regarding the causes they were fighting for. I understood why each girl individually was fighting, but I didn’t understand how their fights connected to
What a charming book! My first exposure to Forrest was through her poetry (here's one!), and I half-count her blog as poetry too: she has a knack not just for finding the tiny magics in everyday things, but also for finding just the right phrasing to make you feel like you were there too, and itch to pass it along to your own circle - look! look what I found today! isn't it neat?

Which is to say: I had no idea that Forrest wrote fiction, but it feels like a natural extension of her other writing,
Emlee Baptiste is a 12-year old girl living in Mermaid's Hand, a floating community steeped in tradition, off of the Gulf Coast. The people of Mermaid's Hand consider themselves sea people, protected by the Seafather, who lives under the sea. People in Em's community believe that the Seafather provides everything they need and what they need will come to them, brought in by the tide. Emlee loves her heritage but she longs to visit the seapeople under the waves or explore life on dry land. Em pla ...more
Nov 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fantasy, ya, 2010s
4.5 stars - and I hope I can re-read with a book club one day.

Normally I'm not a fan of stories told as a series of letters and diary entries, as this one is, but I think it absolutely works here. The voices are distinct and the differences between what is in the letters and what's in the more personal diary entries just echo the overarching themes. These themes include the interpretation of others' actions, making decisions based on your own beliefs vs what others think, and learning how to tr
I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s the story of two unlikely pen pals who turn out to have a lot in common and, though living a world apart, actually end up helping each other in times of crisis.

Em is a girl in a marginalized community on the southern U.S. coast (think “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) who puts a message in a bottle. The message is ultimately received by Kaya, a young woman in a place that is an amalgam of Asian countries where minorities have struggled to preserve thei
This book was part of an Indie Fantasy Bundle from The narrative has the form of an epistolary book, interspersed with journal entries, and follows the points of views of twelve-years-old Em, living in a seabound small community on the Mexican Gulf and an adult woman, Kaya, imprisoned on a Asian isle volcano for her political views. Through a fateful message in a bottle, they start corresponding. I had a little hard time accepting how the message in a bottle reached a pe ...more
Review copy: final copy from author

There are several appealing things about this novel. First, the storyline is interesting. A young girl from a small community has sent out a message in a bottle. The community she lives is one that floats on the sea and has a close relationship with the water. The message ends up with a young woman in a unique prison. She is hanging above a volcano. This is a part that was a bit hard to swallow at first. Over time that was more and more believable, but initiall
Toni Ressaire
Mar 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest is one of those books that I enjoy when I want something thought provoking... to escape from my usual thriller, mystery mode.

This work could be a coming of age story. It certainly has these elements as the young girl in the story faces difficulties and learns and grows. I love the portrayal of her innocent, yet wise-for-her-age ideology.

Pen Pal is also sends a message about culture clash, political unrest, and religious freedom. The author does an awe-inspiring job
Debbie Gascoyne
Apr 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014, fantasy
I've always enjoyed epistolary novels, and this is a particularly good one. Told primarily through the words - letter and diary - of Em, a 12 year old girl who lives in a floating community on the Gulf Coast, the story begins as she one day sends a message in a bottle. This message is answered by Kaya, a political prisoner on an unnamed Pacific island, held captive in a terrifying prison suspended over a volcano. A friendship develops between the two, and ultimately they help each other. It is a ...more
May 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: magical-realism, ya
This is the beautifully written story of an unlikely friendship and the consequences of that friendship, told through letters, journal entries and news articles. Em, who lives in a floating community on the Gulf of Mexico, and Kaya, a political prisoner living in a prison suspended over a volcano, are complex, fully-realized characters trying to make sense of their place in their communities and their communities' places in the larger societies they are both part of and outside of. The author sh ...more
Erin Kent
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
I really didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. I must harbor some unconscious bias towards epistolary fictions, or maybe after writing a thesis on them, I'd rather limit my interactions with them. However, this book was charmingly written from multiple perspectives, but the two primary were refreshing. The pace at which the book switched between them was absolutely perfect, neither choppy nor dull. One of the main point of view characters, Em, is an eleven year old, whose voice was r
Patty Templeton
Holy crap. I am floored. I just finished reading Pen Pal. It was SO GOOD.

Pen Pal is a novel in letters that starts when an intrepid 12-year-old girl named Em bottles a letter and throws it into the sea. Through luck, the letter reaches Kaya, a political activist imprisoned OVER A FRIKKIN VOLCANO in an unknown, Asian country. The volcano makes it sound fantastical...but this novel rings truer to contemporary, political activist fiction than the Weird. The young girl and the young woman become fri
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“Em and her people have hurricane hearts. And me? I must cultivate a heart of ruby fire from now on. The power of ruby fire is different from hurricane power. Everyone can see a hurricane coming, and so they shake with fear. The ruby fire no one can see coming until it arrives—and so they shake with fear.” 0 likes
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