Who offers a complete stranger a ride from the Detroit airport to nErDCamp? Anica Mrose Rissi, that’s who. She’s so generous, she not only gave me that ride some years back, she introduced me to Cracker Barrel! And as you learn below, Anica also found a way to be a true light during this difficult pandemic time. It is no surprise that such a big heart leaks out into her wonderful writing and I am so thrilled to host her today for Friend Friday in celebration of two very different recent books with a common thread: Love, Sophia On the Moon, illustrated by Mika Song, (Little Brown Books for Young Readers) and Nobody Knows But You (HarperCollins/Quill Tree).
In mid-March, with everything shutting down due to COVID-19, I posted my address on social media along with the promise, “If any of your suddenly-homeschooled kids would like to amuse themselves and practice their writing/storytelling/penmanship by writing to a pen pal who actually writes back, good news: I am a pen pal who writes back (and puts fun stickers on the envelope). This offer also stands for grownups.”
Receiving handwritten letters from kids and adults—some of whom have read my books, some of whom have not—and crafting my replies has been a source of joy during these strange months when my usual mode of writing—drafting books—has not come easily, and my usual source of human connection—seeing friends in person—has not been available.
I love the hope and intimacy of a letter sealed in an envelope, dropped into a mailbox, and carried for miles and days before it reaches its recipient. I love the anticipation of unfolding a piece of stationary, and the thrill of seeing new or familiar handwriting inside. I love reading about senders’ pets, favorite colors, families, routines, and what they will be when they grow up. I love putting pen to paper and sharing stories from my day when I reply.
I’ve always responded to mail from readers, but exchanging letters with my pandemic pen pals feels a little different—more immediate, and more essential. It’s also a return to my creative roots, for letters played a huge role in my becoming an author.
Before I was a writer, I was a letter writer. Before cell phones, Skype, and email, when long-distance phone calls were too expensive and texting was not yet invented, several of my closest friendships—the friends I made at music camps and other summer programs, who lived far from my tiny hometown—were conducted by mail. The best part of getting home from school each day was finding out if I had a letter waiting—or maybe even two. I read those letters immediately, and spent hours writing back, describing everything from the setup of my room to the minutiae of my day; writing my feelings, hopes, and disappointments; confiding secrets; sharing jokes; and learning how to make things come alive on the page. I hadn’t yet dreamed of becoming a writer, yet I spent huge chunks of time inadvertently practicing the craft.
Both of my 2020 books—my pandemic releases—are epistolary. In Love, Sophia on the Moon (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), my picture book with illustrator Mika Song, which was published in late March, Sophia packs her bags at the end of a time out, and writes her mom a letter: “Dear Mom, I’m running away and won’t ever come back. From now on I live on the moon. Don’t try to stop me. Love, Sophia.” She blasts off in her rocket ship…and her mother writes back.
In Nobody Knows But You (HarperCollins/Quill Tree), my young adult thriller released this week, a girl’s unsent letters written in the wake of a friend’s death are interspersed with news clips, texts, a court transcript, rumors, and posts from other campers and counselors who were there at Camp Cavanick when the murder happened.
It’s a strange time to be releasing a book, but I’m proud of this one, and feeling lucky for the chance to send it out into the world to find its readers.
If you pick it up, I hope you’ll send me a letter and tell me what you think.
Anica Mrose Rissi is the author of more than a dozen books for kids and teens. Her essays have been published by The Writer and the New York Times, and she plays fiddles in and writes lyrics for the band Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves. Anica tweets about bookish things and her dog, Arugula, at @anicarissi, which is also her handle on Instagram.
[Author photo]: Anica Mrose Rissi, photo by Kim Indresano
[Photo of pen and Anica’s address]
[book covers: Nobody Knows But You and Love, Sophia on the Moon]