Erin Entrada Kelly Talks Newbery Award and Filipino Storytelling Tradition

The author's character-building approach in "Across the Universe" takes her readers on an honest, authentic journey.

Photographs by Michael Branscom

It starts with a character for Erin Entrada Kelly. One character begets another and a novel is born.

The 2018 Newbery Medal winner doesn’t find her creative process particularly inspired. In fact, that initial protagonist tends to come to life in her car. “It’s almost always when I’m driving,” Kelly says. “I wish I could say I had a dream and it was some kind of magic, but it’s not.”

Her characters appear to her as an image—such as two girls in a boat—and the subsequent question-and-answer sessions with these new lives can become so engaging, Kelly can err on even her most well-traveled routes.

“I pass up my exits all the time,” she says, laughing.

One morning, as she drove her silver 2008 Scion the 40-minute commute from her suburban home to her copyediting job near Philadelphia International Airport, Kelly “saw” a boy at the bottom of a well. She immediately knew he was afraid of the dark and wondered why he would be there. She saw him—she’ll name him Virgil—call for help and nobody could hear him. Nobody could hear him. With that, Valencia, a deaf girl in Virgil’s school, enters the story.

Virgil and Valencia became the main characters in Hello, Universe, which won the 2018 Newbery Medal, the highest honor in American children’s literature. The award vaulted Kelly into a “surreal and humbling” world.

Nurturing a love of writing since elementary school, Kelly has been a reporter, magazine editor, and copyeditor while finding her way as a novelist. In 2012, she moved from Louisiana to Pennsylvania. She earned her MFA in creative writing in 2016 from Rosemont College, where she teaches Contemporary Issues in Children’s Literature. She loves writing, a lifelong passion turned profession that has led her here—navigating this new life as a Newbery winner.

“It’s been incredible,” she says. “Especially the response from the Filipino community.” For the first time in Newbery history, the winner and all three honor books were written by authors of color.

“I get messages from people in the Philippines who are just very proud that a Filipina-American has been recognized,” says Kelly. “When you have a group of people saying they’re so proud you’re representing the community, it’s like ‘Whoa.’”

But no pressure. “Pressure to me implies negative,” she says. “I don’t feel pressure, I feel pride. I feel an immense amount of pride.”

Lara Saguisag, an assistant professor at the College of Staten Island, moved to the U.S. from the Philippines as an adult. She researches children’s and young adult literature and hopes Kelly’s novels and success help Filipino and Filipino-American kids “recognize they are worthy of being in stories” and even inspire them to create their own. But Saguisag cautions educators and the media against making Kelly the Filipino voice.

“I would hate for Erin to be boxed in as ‘the expert’ on the Filipino experience,” she says.

Right now, though, Kelly is the most prominent voice of that experience. There is irony in Kelly becoming a literary conduit for Filipino culture. Growing up, she resented the heritage that made her feel like an outcast. It was only later that she appreciated it and sought to learn more about the islands, people, and traditions she now celebrates in much of her work.

Kelly was raised in Lake Charles, LA, where she moved when she was five. Her parents met when her father, Dennis, was stationed on a U.S. military base in the Philippines. Her mother, Virgilia, left her family and home to be with Dennis in his native Kansas and raise their family in the United States—first in Kansas, then Denver, before settling in Louisiana.

As a mestiza (the child of a Filipina mother and white father), Kelly grew up ashamed of being Asian in a very white world. She felt like an outsider, a theme repeated in her middle grade novels, which often honor the culture she once rejected.

“I don’t think a lot of people are aware how rich and layered Filipino folklore, mythology, and literature are, because it’s not widely read,” she says. “I really wanted to celebrate more of that in Land of Forgotten Girls [Kelly’s 2016 novel] and Hello, Universe and show people what the culture is about and [give them] an appreciation for all the stories have to offer and the way they hand down stories.”

It’s that storytelling that helped Kelly find success as a writer. In elementary school, she wrote “knockoffs” of the Judy Blume and “Sweet Valley High” books she loved. As she got older, every attempt to write something of her own fell short. One day, when Kelly was 19 or 20, her mom told her a story about her grandfather in the Philippines.

“She always told me stories; I just didn’t always listen,” Kelly says. “I finally listened.”

The tale of her grandfather led to her first short story that became a finalist for publication. Kelly prodded her mother to tell her more, which inspired her writing. Her first published piece was a short story that ran in a literary magazine in the Philippines.

Still, her novels were going nowhere. She realized all the failed attempts had a couple of things in common—they involved characters age 10 to 12 and plots that were much too cerebral.

“I needed to look inward and ask, what did I have to say about the world?” Kelly says. “So my first book [Blackbird Fly] was very autobiographical because of that. From that point on, every story that comes to me starts with a character.”

Those characters don’t have to be Filipino. Kelly doesn’t feel confined to only those stories. She writes outside the community with the responsibility, thoughtfulness, and self-examination necessary to do it honestly and authentically.

Her Newbery follow-up, You Go First, coming out in April, doesn’t include a Filipino character. But Kelly returns to her roots in her next book, a fantasy novel scheduled to be released in summer 2019.

“It’s very much inspired by Filipino folklore and happens in an archipelago,” she says of her first fantasy and fifth novel.

Kelly follows the discussions about diverse books and voices in literature closely, because it’s important, she says, and also to keep her own biases in check. She supports “own voices” (books written by authors who share the identity of their minority or marginalized characters) whenever possible and thinks that when writing outside your community, authors “have to be and should be held more accountable than people writing within their community.” Writers must also acknowledge their own prejudice—something, she says, they rarely want to do.

“We all want to think we’re very open-minded, and we all want to think that we’re very progressive and forward-thinking,” she says. “But the reality is that all of us have preconceived notions of all kinds of things, and if you’re not willing to admit it and suss it out, you’re never going to be able to write authentically outside of your community.”

There is also added responsibility and work. Before writing, Kelly has a lengthy preparation period that includes research and interviews. For Hello, Universe she read “a ton of folklore,” because Virgil’s grandmother told stories. But that research was nothing compared to her efforts to get Valencia just right.

To write about a deaf character, Kelly reached out to the American Society for Deaf Children and was introduced to Gina Oliva, a deaf woman and advocate who has written books about deaf children mainstreamed in schools. Tapping her journalism experience, Kelly interviewed Oliva repeatedly, asking uncomfortable and personal questions when necessary so she could portray the character accurately.

In addition, Kelly learned sign language and had a professor at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf and hard of hearing students, read the book, as well.

The effort for authenticity extends to the age group she writes about and for. Kelly is always aware that kids today are not experiencing exactly what she did at that age.

“With my daughter, I made a vow that I would never start a sentence with ‘When I was your age…,’” says Kelly, whose daughter is 21. “Of course I’ve been 12 or 16, but I’ve never been the age where she’s at. The world is very different and the problems are very different.”

For her characters, she focuses on emotion, not specific events from her past.

“I try to tap into how I felt at that age, which I remember very, very vividly,” she says. “I try to tap into that aspect, which I think is universal across decades and geography and cultures.”

Kelly takes her writing, and her responsibility to her characters and readers, very seriously, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Quick with a self-deprecating comment and laugh, she talks about the writer-editor-reader collaboration with appreciation. Kelly loves getting notes from her editor and doing revisions that she thinks make the story better. She is without pretention. Her most vital creative space is a 10-year-old Toyota.

“The thing about writing is we like to romanticize it,” she says. “These are all my beautiful words and please nobody touch them. That’s true if you want to be a solitary writer. But writing is supposed to be a shared experience. It’s not just about the writer. It’s also about the reader. In publishing, it’s about the collaborative effort of everyone—it’s the writer, it’s the editor, everyone.”

It may start in her car, but she won’t create the next character on her way to work anymore. Kelly quit her day job.

“That’s something the Newbery does,” she says. “I have books forthcoming, and I have stocked away some previous advances. There are a lot of different things in the works that I feel comfortable about. Nothing is guaranteed, but I’m in a good place.”

She didn’t want to do this halfway.

“The Newbery brings a ton of opportunities to serve on panels, conferences, do school visits,” she says. “I had to make a choice: Am I going to limit that and continue my full-time job, or am I going to take the bull by the horns and go for it? This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, so I’m going to go for it.”

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