In May, a Twitter thread by 11-year-old Emerson Weber’s father Hugh about her love of letter writing and a thank-you note to her postal carrier, Doug, went viral, garnering over 70,000 likes, over 40,000 retweets and major media attention from CNN and Good Morning America, among others. The ode to snail mail led to a new book, Sincerely, Emerson: A Girl, Her Letter, and the Helpers All Around Us (HarperCollins), illustrated by Jaclyn Sinquett, which was published last week, with a first print run of 50,000 copies.
The book chronicles Emerson’s letter-writing adventures, which culminated in an influx of mail in response to her letter to Doug from other postal workers, and even a package from her idol, Taylor Swift, who Weber took a cue from and included Easter eggs related to Swift in the book.
I interviewed the young author as well as HarperCollins Executive Editor Kristen Pettit about how the book came about, Emerson’s pen pal journey, the importance of letter writing and how kids can get started writing letters. Emerson Weber will take part in a Barnes & Noble virtual storytime on December 26 to read from the book and offer letter-writing techniques to kids.
Weber started writing letters in second grade. Her first pen pal was her elementary school librarian, Mrs. Versteeg. The two would put their most recent letter on each other’s desk. “Even though I am in middle school now we still write to each other and there is always a smile on my face when I get a letter from her,” said Weber.
Of the first box of letters she received from postal workers, Weber says pleasantly surprised. “Knowing that all those people felt touched by my action and wanted to reach out was mind-blowing. A lot of them said thank you to me for thanking them. That really made clear to me how people need to know that the work they do matters and we are thankful for them. I’m glad I could show my gratitude to them in that way,” she said.
While she doesn’t have a single favorite letter, Weber is especially fond of her new pen pal Ben’s style of letter illustration. “When Ben’s letter arrived I was amazed. I always loved to color and decorate the outside of my envelopes but never thought of illustrating the inside, and that is just what Ben did!” she said. “His letter was filled with drawings of him, his dogs and more.”
Asked why she thinks her penchant for writing letters in the age of email went viral, Weber said, “I think people were touched by my story because in this unfamiliar time a feel-good story might have been what people needed. It gives you a sort of comfort that good things are still happening.”
Weber writes letters daily, though the number of letters she writes can vary from one to as high as ten or twelve, depending on how many she receives. She finds the medium markedly different from electronic communication. “To me letters are different from emails or texts because you can hold it in your hand and it is handwritten,” said Weber. “The fact that you know the person who wrote you a letter sat down and took some time to write to you means so much. In addition it comes in your mailbox and surprises you, when you receive an email or a text all you get is a little blue dot that pops up on your phone or computer.”
Asked her advice for kids who want to write letters but aren’t sure where to start, Weber advised, “[T]ell whoever you are writing to about what you did that day, a book you are reading, or a joke. You can also never go wrong with asking questions, showing your interest in people will make their day and make it more likely you get a response. If you don’t know who to write to, write a letter to your grandma or grandpa. They will love to hear from you and you or your parents are likely to have their address.”
It was that virality that caught the eye of Pettit after a friend sent her the Twitter thread when it only had a few thousand likes. “Reading it, I could hear the beats of a picture book immediately, and I knew it was a story about comfort, gratitude, and connectivity in a time when we were all feeling despondent, frightened, and isolated,” said Pettit. “In my soul, it felt like the book the world needed, so I messaged Hugh and asked about Emerson. Of course, she is just as wonderful as her story would suggest.”
The book was acquired in May and fast-tracked for a December 8 publication date, with illustrator Sinquett who, said Pettit, “understood the heart of the book immediately and brought it to life in what felt like the blink of an eye.”
Asked what differentiates Sincerely, Emerson from other children’s books, Pettit responded, “The fact that this story about love and gratitude is absolutely true makes it unique from other children’s books that touch on similar themes. It isn’t virtue in the abstract. It’s an example of how generosity of spirit really made life better for a whole lot of people around us.”
Pettit calls Emerson’s story “empowering for kid readers,” adding, “It shows how powerful their words can be—and how their expression of them can make a difference in the world, for everyone.”
For Weber, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the quantity but not the quality of the letters she writes, but she sees it as an activity that will continue far into the future. “Now that writing letters is one of my only forms of communication I write a lot more, and to a lot more people,” she said. “I not only write to my friends and family that live far away but to my teachers and my friends from school. During this time letters are very important but when all of this is over I don’t think they will decrease in value. I believe that because of this time people realized that letters are important and it will stay that way.”