You are here

2018 Letters

Owen A. Wagner   |   Claire Venanzi   |   Ellen Poplavska



Dear Erin Entrada Kelly,

Sometimes I simply feel like hiding. Just like Virgil, I am afraid to speak up or defend myself. After reading Hello, Universe, my viewpoint changed on how to defend myself. I used to get teased a lot. I would simply laugh it off, and act like I thought it was a joke. Eventually, I felt helpless and tired of the way people would treat me. When I read your book, I decided that I would speak up. I was shy and I am more of an introvert, but I can still try. Even if people sometimes treat me like I am stupid because I don’t talk much, that doesn’t mean that I am. I can be brave, and change the way people view me, and in the process, change the way I view the world. And most importantly, I can change the way I think of myself.

In second grade, a boy kept telling me that he would bring a crossbow to school and shoot me with it. Why? I don’t know. I probably should have known that he was lying, but for some reason I took it seriously anyway. His friend kept telling me that I was stupid, and when I didn’t stand up for myself, they acted like I was a complete weirdo. I didn’t know that when I didn’t stand up for myself, it would make me a bigger target. Eventually, I got sick and tired of it and told my parents. They told me to tell the teacher, and I did. She said I could talk to the principal, and I did. She spoke with the kid who was bullying me. I thought all my problems were solved. They were, until last summer.

After second grade, I was homeschooled. I liked it, and up until near the end of 4th grade, there was no thought of me ever going back to school. Then, I decided I might as well try going back. I had recently started wanting to get out of the house more, so I thought that public school would help. But I was worried that I would get bullied again. Then I read Hello, Universe. I felt very connected to Virgil, and realized that even if I was bullied again, I could stand up for myself.

I ended up going to public school this year, and I was assigned really good teachers. My classmates are amazing, and I feel no possibility of ever being made fun of like that again. It hasn’t happened since, because people know I can stand up for myself. I can thank you for that.

Some books you read, toss in the closet, and never read again. But some books knock you off of your feet, and catch you by surprise, changing your life. Because of the way that Hello, Universe changed me, I think that if the whole world read your book, the world would be a better place because of it. Maybe we all will be called stupid or made fun of in our life. But what if I ask myself: What is the truth? I realize that no matter how much someone says something about me that is untrue, even the 1,000th time, it won’t be true.

And the truth is, I am smart. We are all smart. We’re all bright, clever, and creative.

I just had to find confidence. Because the difference is, I’m different.


Owen A. Wagner



Dear Misty Copeland,

It was a pleasure to read a book that spoke my language. Like you, I am a dancer, and could relate to your dance experiences in your autobiography Life in Motion. This book had a significant impact on me and put things into perspective. During your difficult childhood, I related to your struggles with anxiety, as I too suffer from it. I often feel as though I am trapped in a room that keeps getting smaller and smaller by the second. I get emotional, aggravated, jittery, and breathe much faster and heavier than normal. The only way I know how to cope with my anxiety is to bottle up all of my feelings inside of me, much like you did when you struggled with embarrassment over your unstable living conditions. I also feel as though I have no one to talk to about my feelings. My mother is so kind and helpful, but I never think she understands just how bad I feel – no one in my family does. I am the only one in my family who experiences anxiety, which makes it very difficult to explain my emotions. Saying this reminds me of when you said that you hid all of your emotions from the rest of the world and would not let anyone know how you really felt. The only thing I can do to help myself is to bottle up all of my feelings inside of me; like a jar with a tight lid.

There is no one in my life who can possibly get what I go through every day, I do not have that kind of supportive figure. Because of this, I talk to myself a lot and am a very shy, quiet person. Even though my dance instructors tell me that I have all of the qualities of being a successful dancer. I lack self-confidence, which affects my ability to rise to my full potential. If I cannot figure out a turn or am having a hard time executing a move, I try to be positive and tell myself that I can do it, but there is a voice inside of my head that doubts me and tells me to give up. Half of my brain wants me to believe in myself, but the other half is stronger. It tells me that I am worthless and that I should not even be a dancer because I cannot turn. When you said that walking into your first ballet class was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, it reminded me of how I often feel when walking into my turns and leaps class each week. I struggle with my alisicone turns, so hearing you say, “It felt like all eyes were fixed on me when I didn’t know what I was doing,” caused me to realize that I was not alone. Seeing as someone like you, someone I look up to so much, had the same doubts about your abilities as I do helped me understand that I am not alone.

My anxiety affects me at school and with friends. I know my friends mean well, but they do not understand the negatives that anxiety brings. Only a few of my friends know I even have it, but have forgotten. I envy other girls at school or at dance because they never have to face the pain I feel during my anxiety attacks. They all have what seems like perfect lives to me and everything works out for them. They always seem happy and never seem to experience any sort of pain or sadness or stress in their lives. They have friends that always understand them because they do not have any problems that may set them apart from their friend groups, or make them feel any less special than they are. They have cute clothes and hang out with each other whenever they want. Meanwhile, I am at home thinking about all of the things that could go wrong when hanging out with other people, when I should be at a sleepover or party. This compares to how you missed your sweet 16 party because of a stress migraine. I feel excluded many times when I see or hear that my friends have been hanging out together without me. I feel like no one wants to spend time with me because they think I am not fun. Because of this, I tend to wonder who my friends really are, and if my friends are really my friends. Sometimes, I cannot blame them, as my anxiety has gotten in the way of my fun personality and get-togethers with friends several times. However, this book has put things into perspective for me, and shown me that you never know what goes on behind closed doors. Like how someone watching you dance would say that you are perfect, and would only see you as a dance prodigy, when really they do not know the difficulties you are facing in your personal life. All of these struggles in my life with friends and dance and school bottled up inside of me have really worn me out up until now, but seeing your struggles have helped me to accept my own.

Writing this letter to you has been very relieving for me. I am finally getting to share my emotions with someone who can understand how I feel, which I have not done in a long time. I am finally getting to take off the rusty lid of my jar of stresses. Hearing that I was not the only one who experiences anxiety was like a key to that continuously dwindling room in which I feel entrapped during my anxiety attacks. I definitely feel like I am behind in dance, so I can relate to your feelings of inadequacy during your first ballet class when you felt that everyone else was better than you. Seeing what you turned into was reassuring to me and reminded me that I will catch up with the rest of my classes and that there is no need to give up. I admire how you overcame adversity, how, even though you had a rough start, you continued to believe in yourself and never stopped chasing your dreams. Although I may have some difficulties, dancing is my passion. I admire how you are able to let go of whatever stress you may be feeling and forget all of your worries when you dance. Even as you got older and struggled with weight issues, you never let that get in the way of your dream. I strive to be that way; to not let my anxiety get in the way of my success. Though you did have a bumpy start with your multiple step-fathers’ extremely different personalities pulling your mother away while your family struggled to make ends meet, you were able to persevere through it all and ultimately come out on top. In this same way, I hope to have the courage to still achieve my goals, despite my anxiety. You also taught me to appreciate the things I have, as your childhood was so difficult, I realize that I am lucky for all of the good things that I have in my life, despite my challenges.

Thank you for your honesty in sharing your story. Reading your autobiography was very inspiring to me and taught me that even the most unlikely can become legendary.

With sincere thanks,

Claire Venanzi



Dear Mr. King,

When I read your first hard-boiled detective story, Mr. Mercedes, I was thirteen years old. I was hardly a person at that point, and this particular book of yours has changed everything.

At the time in my life when I read your book, the world revolved around me. Everything I touched sent the planet spiraling out into the stars and then reeling back in again. I twitched and ran my hands over surfaces, over and over again, stroking them and then pulling away like they were hot, and tapping them just the right way, just the right number of times. Just as my hands carefully touched everything in just the right way, my feet did too. They were dragged, hopped, and skipped in a very particular path across every floor.

All my childhood, I touched the space between my mouth and nose, compulsively. I worried other kids would think I was doing something gross but I wasn’t, I was just touching the place between my mouth and nose, and that was an important thing to do, and I took it for granted that it was important. I never questioned why. And that’s the way all of it was.

Every day, every few minutes, I twitched and blinked, hummed and stood and sat and tapped my head and shoulders and face. There were different, specific routines for every situation. At times, reading was near impossible, my mind sticking to every word, repeating it over and over again. Blinking was no longer natural– I counted. Even numbers were safe, and odd numbers were unacceptable. Four was the safest number– four blinks, four hums, four taps, four breaths.

Every night was consumed by an elaborate ritual that took hours to get right. I faced each wall and then the ceiling, tapping my head, blinking, humming, mumbling, tensing my muscles. All in even proportions. Then I’d touch the stuffed animal hedgehog in bed beside me. He was an old hand puppet, and I’d make him bow a certain number of times, and clap and nod and shake his head. Then I had to kiss him the right amount of times and tell him, in my mind, every detail of my day, before closing out the ceremony with more elaborate tapping of everything around me.

I was convinced I heard everyone reading my thoughts all the time, and I felt wicked and guilty. I imagined people in dark corners and in bathrooms, watching me. New rituals were developed to get them to leave me alone. I was terrified of lying, so everything I said was followed by a repeated muttering of the words “maybe, maybe not” over and over again: a chant, a ritual, a disclaimer that I wasn’t lying in case the thing turned out to be false. I’d say it anytime my family said anything, too, and I desperately tried to force them to agree that whatever they said might not be true. I didn’t want them to be caught lying.

I wanted to protect them from a threat no one else saw: a malevolent, frightening force of what MUST be done. I had to keep the balance, I had to do what felt right, and I never, not once, questioned that force, or where it came from, or whether it must be followed.

I assumed I was normal, or rather, that I was blessed– I assumed that everyone else heard the instructions and just chose to ignore them. I thought that everyone around me had shut out the rules and the commands in order to lead an easy, sinful life of lying and swearing and eating things in odd numbers. I was a martyr, sacrificing my sanity, my time, my focus to save everyone around me, even just for a second. I was protecting them from a vengeful God.

I never questioned the commands until I read your book.

When I read your detective story, Mr. King, one character in particular stuck with me, and that was Holly, the neurotic woman helping the ex-detective solve the mystery. Her character’s constant, miniscule rituals, made up of mumbling and shivering, left me speechless. It wasn’t something I’d ever seen before, in media or in real life. She was odd. She was mistreated. She engaged in compulsive movement and mumbling.

She was like me.

I had never encountered anyone, real or fictional, going through the same thing I was going through. I never questioned the orders in my mind, because I never saw them anywhere else, didn’t know what they were called, why they were happening, what to do about them. I was delusional and uninformed, because the media rarely portrays mental illness honestly and it never, ever shows it to children. I found salvation in a book I was probably too young for, because books written for children and teens don’t often show what we need to see. In that book, I found the comfort of knowing I was not alone. I found the information that what I was going through wasn’t real, that it wasn’t the voice of God or some force I had to follow. Holly showed me that it wasn’t normal, that it wasn’t noble, that it wasn’t blessed– it was illness, and I was allowed to resist. I was allowed to say no. Nothing horrible would happen if I stopped following directions.

I’d truly never known that it was okay to stop listening. It broke my world. Many people talk about how hard it is to break out of compulsive cycles (and it is!) but no one ever mentions the impossibility of living in an illusion of powerlessness. I was completely delusional and unable to get better until someone told me the truth– and too often, no one tells children the truth. I believe this book probably saved my life. I was heading towards a cliff, and I truly can’t say what was waiting at the bottom.

So I’d like to thank you, Mr. King. Thank you for writing a character in whom I recognized myself, and thank you for making her a hero. You showed me I was living a confused lie, but you also showed me what I was capable of. Mr. Mercedes shattered my illusions and I broke free.

Ellen Poplavska