February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

In “The Land of Forgotten Girls” | An Interview with Erin Entrada Kelly

Listen to Erin Entrada Kelly reveal the story behind The Land of Forgotten Girls, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

Land of the Forgotten GirlsErin Entrada Kelly’s debut novel, Blackbird Fly (2015), the story of a young Filipino girl growing up in Louisiana, found its way onto many of 2015’s best books lists. In her second novel, The Land of Forgotten Girls (Mar. 2016, Gr 4-6; both HarperCollins), Kelly returns to the Louisiana setting and the immigrant experience. After the death of their mother in the Philippines, Soledad and Ming Madrid are brought to the United States by their father and soon abandoned there along with their stepmother. The chain-smoking Vea, who struggles to support them and send money back home on a low-paying job and “subsidies,” is angry and abusive. Themes of abandonment, resilience, friendship, and the power of the imagination, are interwoven in this poignant, ultimately hopeful, story for middle grade readers.

The immigrant experience, specifically the Filipino experience, is a theme in both of your novels. Were there stories that spoke to you, as a first-generation Filipino American, growing up?

No. Not in literature, not on television, and not in school. When I was growing up, most of my peers didn’t even know that the Philippines existed. I was raised in a city with a very small Asian population. At the time, it was about 0.1 percent. Now it’s up to 2 percent.

Soledad’s protection of Ming, her younger sister, is incredibly poignant. Siblings—present, imaginary, and no longer alive—play an important role in this book. Can you speak to that?

When I was a little girl and felt sad and lonely (which was often), I imagined that I had a guardian angel watching over me. She’d sit on the edge of my bed while I slept. Sometimes she’d wrap her massive wings around me. That’s who Amelia [the deceased sister] is for Soledad.

The relationship between Soledad and Ming is special to me because I have an older sister. We both grew up in Louisiana, but neither of our parents were from the area, so our extended families were all over the place—the Philippines, New Jersey, the Midwest. In many ways, we were a family of four rolling solo: my parents, my sister, and me.

My sister and I are very different—just like Sol and Ming—but we’re incredibly close. I have great admiration for her, just as Ming has for Sol. I wanted to celebrate that dynamic.

The power of storytelling and the imagination resonates throughout Forgotten Girls, but the dangers of retreating into that world are also clear to Sol, when her sister begins to cope by believing she will be rescued by an aunt who doesn’t exist. 

We all have to find the happy balance between what we dream of and what we have. It’s easy for us to escape into our imagination and ignore what’s right in front of us, just like it’s easy for us to accept what’s in front of us and ignore what could be. It’s a delicate balancing act at any age.

I love Sol’s friend Manny, who, like her, is often left alone while his father works. His interest in kissing and Sol (who isn’t ready for any of that), and willingness to go along with her ideas and plans, really speaks to this audience, and that these are 12-year-olds trying to figure things out.

I always find it interesting when adults tell kids about “the real world,” as if what they’re experiencing is trivial and not part of the “real” way of things. In my opinion, there’s nothing more real than middle school.

The insidiousness of stereotyping and the cruelty of name-calling are evident in both of your books. In Forgotten Girls, we see it working both ways—how immigrants can also subscribe to prejudicial views. Is this a conscious theme in your work?

My goal is to write honestly. That’s the only genuine conscious decision. Racism exists within all groups. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

There is so much for children to relate to in your characters’ lives: the feeling of not fitting in or invisibility, the longing for an absent parent, the impact of bullying (from both peers and adults), and the desire to change their circumstances. And while not much changes in Sol and Ming’s life with Vea, the book ends with hope.

Thank you! That was my intention. I wanted to write a book about the power of hope in the darkest of circumstances—that’s the whole point of Forgotten Girls. Hope is a subtle force. Many times, it’s little more than a feeling; a sense that things will get better and “this too shall pass.” Again, my goal is to write honestly—and it would have been dishonest for Sol and Ming to get whisked away by Daddy Warbucks.

It’s interesting that Sol offers the proverbial olive branch at the end of the book—that she is the one with the ability to imagine that circumstance has changed the life of her stepmother, who was once the skinny child holding an ice cone whom Sol saw in an old photo.

Sol isn’t your typical 12-year-old. She’s strong, wise, and fiercely independent. But she’s smart enough to see that Vea was once a girl like her—young and fierce and trying to figure it all out.

In your first novel, Blackbird Fly, Apple Yengko believes that there are three important facts (IFs) about every person. What would Apple say are your IFs?

  1. I collect old postcards. I buy the postcards for the inscriptions, not the images. I often wonder—and try to figure out—what the inscriptions mean. For example, I have one from 1908 addressed to “Ms. Y.A. Williams of Asheville, North Carolina.” The inscription reads: “Opportunity is beating an anvil on your door. So beware! A.J.” I wish I knew what that was about.
  2. I have chronic asthma. When I was in elementary school, my asthma was so severe that my body seized. Asthma attacks can cause sudden stiffness of the neck, which makes it difficult to move. Sometimes I’d just lay there, unable to move, crying for my mother. Luckily, she’d show up fast with warm cloths and medicine. Because I was sick all the time, I missed a lot of school and I spent a lot of time watching Pinwheel on Nickelodeon, which I loved.
  3. I still wear footie pajamas.

TB-imageListen to Erin Entrada Kelly reveal the story behind The Land of Forgotten Girls, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.


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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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