It isn't that Abby can't do her school work. It's just that she doesn't like doing it. When a warning letter is sent home, Abby realizes that all of her slacking off could cause her to be held back--for real! Unless she meets some specific conditions, including taking on an extra-credit project: find a pen-pal in a foreign country. Simple enough (even for a girl who hates homework).
When Abby's first letter arrives at a small school in Afghanistan, Sadeed Bayat is chosen to be her pen pal...Well, kind of. He is the best writer, but he is also a boy, and in his village it is not appropriate for a boy to correspond with a girl. So his younger sister dictates and signs the letter--until Sadeed decides what his sister is telling Abby isn't what he'd like Abby to know.
As letters flow back and forth between Illinois and Afghanistan, Abby and Sadeed discover that their letters are crossing more than an ocean. They are crossing a huge cultural divide and a minefiled of different lifestyles and traditions. Their growing friendship is also becoming a growing problem for both communities, and some people are not happy. Suddenly things are not so simple.
A book about pen pals between Illinois and Afghanistan? Already I know why Extra Credit is nominated for both the Bluestem and Caudill awards. And I'm not gonna lie, I think it should win.
The glimpses we get of Illinoisian and Afghani life show us that both cultures are wildly different, and yet Abby and Sadeed connect on a very easy level, in just a few letters. I loved seeing them learn to appreciate new parts of the world, as well as learn to love their home more, through their interactions with each other.
My one qualm is Sadeed's impeccable English. I don't care if he's the best student. He is twelve, and English is at least his third language. I ran an English club in Senegal for the top English students, and one of my favorite activities was cracking up at their unintentionally funny essays. It takes years to master a language, spelling and grammar and especially idioms. The fact that Sadeed was flawless was a little jarring to me. But whatever. No one wants to read a misspelled letter in a book.
Still, I loved this story. I want to hug it forever. It didn't try to gloss over the military issues or cultural issues, or the hard feelings that exist between some USians and Afghanis. But Extra Credit proved that those bad feelings do not have to win. They don't have to be the only way we relate to each other. And that is beautiful.
Five out of five little mountains in the mail.
Release Date: June 2009
Reading Level: Grade 4+
Where In Dunlap Public Library's Collection: BLUESTEM or CAUDILL