Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

As a middle school librarian at a diverse school, I spend a lot of time looking for age-appropriate books that feature diverse characters. Some of our Hispanic girls have asked for more books like Esperanza Rising or Cuba 15 (which is really delightful, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it), and I have been at a loss. Which is why I was so excited to see Julia Alvarez’s new book, Return to Sender.

In Return to Sender, eleven-year-old Tyler’s family is facing some difficult times. Since his father’s accident and his grandfather’s death, his family isn’t sure they can keep their Vermont farm. While he is away visiting his aunt and uncle, his parents make the decision to hire some undocumented workers from Mexico in order to be able to stay on their own land. Tyler strikes up a friendship with the oldest daughter in the family, Mari. As he learns more about her family and the challenges they have faced, he begins to think more about what it means to be loyal to your country even when you disagree with some of its laws.

This is not a book that offers easy answers. The topic of immigration is a difficult one, and I appreciated how it focused on the people surrounding this issue, both the farming family wanting to make ends meet and the family from Mexico trying to create a better life for themselves. It was difficult to read some of Mari’s passages – her mother went back to visit family in Mexico, but she has not returned and no one knows exactly where she is. As the oldest, she carries the most fear about her mother’s absence. Additionally, her undocumented status was a huge burden for her, more than any eleven-year-old should have to bear.

I especially liked that the story began in North Carolina, where some of the local chicken plants have made immigration a very hot topic (as featured in Paul Cuadros’s book A Home on the Field). The characters and their problems are very real, and Return to Sender is a thoughtful treatment of the human side of illegal immigration.

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