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For Erin Entrada Kelly, every story starts with a character. “Characters are people. And you are never without people, even when you’re alone,” the author says. Her 2017 Newbery-winning novel, Hello, Universe, beautifully articulates the dreams and fears of four misfit characters. In amplifying these overlooked voices, Kelly crafts a poignant examination of isolation, connection, and how we use stories to navigate the world.
In her newest book, You Go First, two middle schoolers use their online Scrabble competition as a refuge from bullying and family issues. Countering bullying with compassion and self-doubt with self-acceptance are common themes in all of Kelly’s novels. Her insight into these themes is inspired by the author’s own experience as a first generation Filipina-American raised in a town that lacked much diversity. “Growing up is hard—kids need to know they aren’t alone, and books are powerful tools to encourage those conversations.”
Q | You have a background in journalism. Does this influence how you approach writing your books?
A | The greatest benefits of having a background in journalism are the ability to write and revise quickly and to accept feedback from editors. [Journalism and novel writing] are two very different worlds, but some of the skill sets work both ways. One of the things I loved most about journalism was the opportunity to encounter people, situations, and places outside my comfort zone. There are no downsides to having a well-rounded worldview, especially when you’re a writer.
Q | What inspired You Go First?
A | I find board games fascinating, and I wanted to write something related to that. Years ago, when I was working as a newspaper reporter, I wrote a feature on chess—its history, the top players in the area, what it means to be a strong chess player. I never forgot that assignment, or the people I met. But I knew I didn’t want to write about chess. Scrabble immediately came to mind, and so did Charlotte [one of the main characters].
Q | In the book, Charlotte and Ben live thousands of miles apart and connect through the Internet. What role would you say distance plays in their friendship?
A | One of the messages I want young readers to take away is that you’re never alone, even when it feels like you are. In this case, Charlotte and Ben suffer similar challenges, even if they don’t know it. They’re on opposite sides of the country, but they share something intangible— not just a Scrabble game, but a lifeline. Loneliness is hard to carry. But we can take comfort knowing that someone out there understands what we’re going through, even people we have never met or have yet to meet.
Q | Like Ben, I see you’re a big fan of the Harry Potter series. What makes you proud to be a Hufflepuff?
A | The sorting hat took a while to decide on me. Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff? I was always on that line. But after numerous scientific surveys from places like Pottermore and Buzzfeed, the overwhelming majority has decided that I am indeed a Hufflepuff. Someone once asked me: “If you had to be described in one word, what would you want that word to be?” My answer was “Kind.” What’s more important than that? Nothing. Hufflepuffs, of course, are known for being kind.
Q | In Hello, Universe, what does Virgil, a Filipino-American protagonist, learn from his grandmother’s stories? How has storytelling influenced your own life?
A | Those stories helped Virgil make sense of his world in the same way that books and stories helped me make sense of mine. I grew up in an environment that I didn’t completely understand. Books and stories allowed me to experience other worlds, time periods, and lifetimes. Judy Blume taught me about bullying. My mother’s stories—usually about Catholic saints—taught me about humility and compassion. When I read Sideways Stories From Wayside School, it was like looking through a funhouse mirror at a carnival; I was far away from south Louisiana and suddenly in this strange and wonderful place where teachers turn kids into apples. And when I read Very Worried Walrus, from the Sweet Pickles collection, I realized I wasn’t the only person who worried over everything.
Q | What do you hope readers take away from Hello, Universe?
A | There are many ways to be strong. And you are never alone.
Q | In your novel Blackbird Fly, Apple, like many of your protagonists, experiences bullying that makes her feel like an outcast. Why are you drawn to characters who don’t “fit in”?
A | Because I never felt like I fit in, either. We all know what it’s like to feel inadequate, uncomfortable, unworthy, or left out. Some of us experience it more than others, but we all experience it. My hope is that young readers understand that no matter how underestimated or alone they feel, there is someone out there who gets it. Sometimes all you need is one person to get you. And sometimes that person is in a book.
Q | What’s your advice for teachers who are striving to support lonely students?
A | As a quiet kid, I was easy to overlook in school. One way teachers can reach kids like me is to recognize and encourage their strengths as much as they can. It can take a little more prodding than usual, and it may seem like the kids are not listening, but trust me—they are.
Q | What are some favorite moments from school visits you’ve gone on?
A | I love doing school visits. I always have a blast, so it’s hard to choose. One of my most memorable visits was to the Iskwelahang Pilipino School outside Boston. It was great to speak to a community that completely related to my personal experiences as a Filipina-American. But I’ve had something memorable happen at every event. I don’t use a canned presentation, because I like to play off the students’ energy—I never quite know what’s going to happen. If the students have read Blackbird Fly, I’ll often ask them to share some of their “interesting facts,” since Apple believes every person has three “I.F.s.” My favorite so far is: “I sleep with worms.”
Q | What’s up next for you?
A | I’m in revisions on my first middle-grade fantasy, which is scheduled to be released in 2019. It’s largely inspired by Filipino folklore, and I’m crazy excited about it!
Photo: Laurence Kesterson