Q&A with Hayley Rocco and John Rocco



Letters are more than simple exercises in politeness, How to send a hugpoints out the young narrator; they are a way to send a warm hug to a distant loved one. Once written, a “hug delivery specialist” sorts it out and sends it to bring joy to someone from afar. This ode to the vanishing art of letter writing is the work of first author Hayley Rocco and her husband, author-illustrator Caldecott Honor John Rocco. TP spoke with the duo about impostor syndrome, how they find spaces as a whole, and what the letters tell us about ourselves.

Did you talk about collaboration?

Hayley Rocco: Well, when we first met, we talked about collaboration. But it wasn’t until the pandemic, when I couldn’t go anywhere and was writing a lot more letters, that John said: “This is the book you need to write!

John Rocco: We had several others we were playing with, but when this one started we knew it was the one to do. At that time his name was Write a letterin the manner of Mordicai Gerstein paint a bird.

Hayley to John: You asked me, “What does it mean to write a letter to you?” And I said, “I’m sending a hug!” I tell people who are important to me that I love them.

John: That’s when we really broke down. It was all we needed.

Do you keep the letters you have received?

Hayley: Yes, I am a very sentimental person. I have letters from my grandfather and uncle as he traveled the world. Being able to look at that history in my family in the letters, and my relationships with them, and where I was at that point in my life, that’s what the writer is trying to convey to them about that moment.

Was the writing process smooth?

Hayley: It was hard. I am new in this field. I doubted myself: “I don’t know if that sounds good.” “Will this 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 was like, “Who am I to write a book compared to this great talent I grew up with or this brilliant young artist?”

But [gestures] I have this pro to ask. It’s been such a great sport.

John: And I explained to him that we all have impostor 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 mostly done when you took it to the publisher, or did they contribute a lot?

John: Oh, yeah, Alvina [Ling] had great ideas.

Hayley: We had started this magical route where it was as if the letter got lost in the mail and there were pirates taking it.

John: The main character feared that her letter would get lost, and she had a very vivid imagination. It was the only part of the book that was fantastic, and Alvina brought us back to reality: “It’s cute, but maybe we should change it to be more of a practical story: “That’s how you hug. ‘ ”

Hayley: We fought it first: “We love it!” Now we are so happy to have listened to her. She helped me focus and get the story off the ground.

And did your agent, Rob Weisbach, also contribute?

John: Rob will jump in when he sees something we don’t see, which is always really helpful.

Hayley: He’s been doing this for a long time, and he has a bit of a say in everything.

How did the actual collaboration go? Did you work separately or together?

John: It was really fun. On other projects, either I illustrate someone else’s book and it’s already finished, or I do my own book, which gives me a lot of freedom, but you’re on your own. 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 them here?”

John: For this dummy we’re working on right now, we were stuck, and then we realized, “Listen, we can write this in first person!” That would solve all our problems. You would never have this experience the other way around. I wouldn’t call the editor and say, “You have to ask the author to rewrite this. It gives you a lot more freedom.

It’s special to receive a letter. The person has stopped to take the time to be with you on this piece of paper.

Hayley: You are not alone.

Do you share a studio?

John: No, we have adjoining rooms.

Hayley: I’m the type that just likes to brainstorm – I think maybe it’s the publicist in me, thinking about all sorts of things. And John will say, “I have my headphones. I’m off for a while.” I respect that, but sometimes it’s hard to remember.

John: I was talking to Leo and Diane Dillon [neighbors when John lived in Brooklyn], and they described how they worked. Sometimes she would bring a painting upstairs, and sometimes he would bring her something downstairs, and I was like, maybe we should be on different floors?

But when we work together on a model, or on a problem, then yeah, it takes a lot of focus, and sometimes we have to leave the house together and go for a walk on the beach or something, just go and clear your mind . Because the answer is there, you just need to be in a place where you can let it in.

Was the artwork also a collaboration?

John: In general, Hayley approves of all the art I do for her book. Most of the time she’s like, “That looks great,” but sometimes she’s like, “I wasn’t thinking about that, can we try that?” and if it’s easy, I’ll growl for a while and then I’ll do it.

Hayley: Or he will put his foot down. He’s got so much talent it’s hard not to go. I was able to contribute some of the art on the end pages [artwork that replicates children’s drawings in letters]. We had a day where we just doodled. John used his left hand to draw, but I used my right hand.

Has the work been reworked at some point?

John: The inside of the post did, the huge delivery post. We wanted it to be more pleasant and lively, so we made sure it was the birthday of one of the delivery people, and that there was a cake on one of the tables.

Hayley: And duck was something I was very passionate about. I always told John I wanted 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 to print it on matte paper so the letters look like real letters. We wanted the book to have that tactile quality and feel no different from a real letter.

Have you made any in-person appearances?

Hayley: Yes! We were talking to kids recently at the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, and one of the questions we asked them was, “When was the last time you printed out an email and put it in the shoebox so you can stare at it for years? later?” Most people don’t do that.

We started 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 received a handwritten letter?”

It’s special to receive a letter. The person has stopped to take the time to be with you on this piece of paper. It’s a bit of that person’s time, and it means the world, especially these days.

Will you make more appearances for this book?

John: Yeah, this is the first book I’ve been able to go back to nature with, and it’s so much more fun to be able to do that.

Hayley: At the festival, we have set up a creation station. We had stationery and special stamps, and the kids got used to it so easily. They wrote these amazing letters to their grandparents.

A child immediately knew who she wanted to write to: “My grandmother who lives in Australia. I asked, “Have you ever been to Australia?” and she said, “Yes, but I was too young to remember that.” They text every day, she says, but she was very excited to send him a letter – that’s something they didn’t do.

It was fun to watch the kids reflect on what they said and how they connected with the people they loved.

Is there more collaboration in your future?

John: We’ve done six other mannequins since this one that are already sold. We got busy! We are preparing an illustrated biography of David Attenborough and a series of images entitled Meet the Wild Things, about a pangolin, a sloth, a quokka and an axolotl. The sixth book is a fictional picture book with Little, Brown. So far we’ve been to Costa Rica to study sloths in the wild, and Hayley spent two weeks in the South African bush studying dehorned pangolins and rhinos.

How to send a hug by Hayley Rocco and John Rocco, Little, Brown, $17.99 ISBN Nov 15 978-0-316-30692-8

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