Letters are more than just exercises in politeness, How to Send a Hug’s young narrator points out; they’re a way to send a warm hug to a distant loved one. Once it’s written, a “hug delivery specialist” sorts it and sends it along to bring joy to someone far away. This ode to the disappearing art of letter-writing is the work of first-time author Hayley Rocco and her husband, Caldecott Honor author-illustrator John Rocco. PW spoke with the duo about imposter syndrome, how they find spaces in their togetherness, and what letters reveal to us about ourselves.
Had you talked about collaborating?
Hayley Rocco: Well, when we first met, we talked about collaborating. But it wasn’t until the pandemic, when I couldn’t go anywhere and I was writing a lot more letters, that John said, “That’s the book you need to write!”
John Rocco: We had several others we were toying around with, but when this one started we knew it was the one to do. At that point it was called To Write a Letter, in the manner of Mordicai Gerstein’s To Paint a Bird.
Hayley to John: You asked me, “What does writing a letter mean to you?” And I said, “I’m sending a hug! I’m telling the people that I care about that I love them.”
John: That was when we really cracked it. That was everything we needed.
Do you keep letters you’ve received?
Hayley: Yeah, I’m a very sentimental person. I have letters from my grandfather, and from my uncle while he traveled the world. Being able to look at this history in my family in the letters, and my relationships with them, and where I was at that time in my life—it’s what the writer is trying to convey about that moment for them.
Was the writing process smooth?
Hayley: It was difficult. I’m new at this. I doubted myself: “I don’t know if this sounds good.” “Is this going to convey what I’m trying to say?”
John: Because she worked in publishing….
Hayley: I was a children’s book publicist for 10 years, and I’d feel like, “Who am I to be writing a book compared to this great talent I grew up with, or this brilliant young artist?”
But [gestures] I have this pro to ask. He’s been such a great sport.
John: And I explained to her that we all have imposter syndrome —I have it every time I do a book. It’s part of being human. I think if you don’t have it, there might be something wrong.
Who was the editor? Was it largely finished when you brought it to the editor, or did they have a lot of input?
John: Oh, yeah, Alvina [Ling] had some great insights.
Hayley: We had started down this magical route where it was like, the letter gets lost in the mail and there are pirates who take it.
John: The main character was concerned that her letter would get lost, and she had a very vivid imagination. It was the only part of the book that was fantastical, and Alvina brought us back to reality: “That’s cute, but maybe we should change it to it being more of a how-to story—‘This is how you make a hug.’ ”
Hayley: We fought it at first: “We love this!” Now we’re so pleased that we listened to her. She helped me focus and helped get the story off the ground.
And your agent, Rob Weisbach, did he contribute to it, too?
John: Rob will chime in when he sees something that we’re not seeing, which is always very helpful.
Hayley: He’s been doing this for a long time, and he has a little bit of input on everything.
How did the actual collaboration go? Did you work separately or together?
John: It was really fun. On other projects, either I’m illustrating someone else’s book and it’s already complete, or I’m doing my own book, which gives me a lot of freedom, but you’re by yourself. Working with Hayley, what’s fun is that we can talk about it in real time.
Hayley: He can say, “I don’t think these words work here, can we cut it here?”
John: For this one dummy we’re working on now, we were stuck, and then we realized, “Look, we can write it in first person! That would solve all our problems.” You’d never have that experience the other way. I wouldn’t call the editor up and say, “You need to get the author to rewrite this.” It gives you a lot more freedom.
Hayley: You’re not out there by yourself.
Do you share a studio?
John: No, we have adjoining rooms.
Hayley: I’m the type who likes to just shoot out ideas—I think maybe that’s the publicist in me, thinking about all kinds of things. And John will say, “I have my earbuds in. I’m closed off for a while.” I respect that, but it’s difficult to remember sometimes.
John: I was talking to Leo and Diane Dillon [neighbors when John lived in Brooklyn], and they described how they worked. Sometimes she would run a painting upstairs, and sometimes he would run something downstairs to her, and I was thinking, maybe we should be on different floors?
But when we’re working on a dummy together, or working on a problem, then yeah, it takes a lot of focus, and sometimes we need to leave the house together and go for a walk on the beach or something, just get away and clear your mind. Because the answer is there—you just have to be in a place where you can let it in.
Was the artwork a collaboration, too?
John: In general, Hayley has approval of all the art I do for her book. Most of the time she says, “That looks great,” but sometimes she says, “I wasn’t thinking that, can we try this?” and if it’s easy I’ll grumble for a little while and then I’ll do it.
Hayley: Or he’ll put his foot down. He’s so talented it’s hard not to go with it. I did get to contribute some of the art on the endpages [artwork that replicates children’s drawings in letters]. We had a day when we just scribbled. John used his left hand to draw— but I used my right hand.
Did the artwork get reworked at any point?
John: The interior of the post office did, the huge delivery station. We wanted it to feel more personable and alive, so we made sure that it’s one of the delivery guys’ birthday, and there’s a cake on one of the tables.
Hayley: And the duck was something I was very passionate about. I always told John I want ducks, and he said, “I’ll put one in the book—how about that?”
John: One of the things that was important to us was getting it printed on matte paper so that the letters would feel like real letters. We wanted the book to have that tactile quality and not feel different from a real letter.
Have you been doing appearances in person?
Hayley: Yes! We were speaking to kids recently at the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, and one of the questions we asked them was, “When’s the last time you printed out an email and put it in the shoebox so you could look at it years later?” Most people don’t do that.
We started off by asking, “How many people have written a letter in the last six months?”
How many actually had?
Hayley: Maybe 20%? That’s counting birthday cards! And then we asked, “How many people have received a handwritten letter?”
It’s a special thing, to get a letter. The person stopped to take that time to be with you, on that piece of paper. It’s a bit of that person’s time, and that means the world—especially nowadays.
Will you get to do more appearances for this book?
John: Yeah, this is the first book I’ve been able to get back out into the wild with, and it’s so much more fun being able to do that.
Hayley: At the festival we set up a creation station. We had special stationery and stamps, and the kids took to it so easily. They wrote these amazing letters to their grandparents.
One kid knew immediately who she wanted to write to: “My grandmother who lives in Australia.” I asked, “Have you ever been to Australia?” and she said, “Yeah, but I was too young to remember it.” They text every day, she said, but she was very excited to send her a letter—that’s something they haven’t done.
It was fun to see the kids really think about what they were saying and how they were connecting with people they loved.
Is there more collaboration in your future?
John: We’ve done six other dummies since this one that are sold already. We got busy! We’re doing a picture book bio of David Attenborough, and a picture book series called Meet the Wild Things, about a pangolin, a sloth, a quokka, and an axolotl. The sixth book is a fiction picture book with Little, Brown. So far, we’ve gone to Costa Rica to study sloths in the wild, and Hayley spent two weeks in the bush of South Africa studying pangolins and de-horning rhinos.
How to Send a Hug by Hayley Rocco and John Rocco, Little, Brown, $17.99 Nov. 15 ISBN 978-0-316-30692-8