Erin Entrada Kelly will soon see her novel “Hello, Universe” become a Netflix movie./Photos courtesy of Erin Entrada Kelly
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If while at the Delaware Art Museum you happen upon a woman, all scarlet lips and blunt black bangs, with a single pearl on a leather cord around her neck and fingers stacked with pewter rings, stop and say “hello.” She’s your friendly local Newbery Medal–winning children’s author, Erin Entrada Kelly.
Kelly likes to write at the museum, as well as at New Castle libraries. Her ethos is part literature, part rock ‘n’ roll. Relatively new to Delaware—she moved here for love—Kelly found her home in Middletown. “One of the first things I did when I got here was stalk all the libraries,” she says. “I find them to be so warm and open and engaging.”
Kelly’s Newbery Medal honor (the “Oscar” of children’s lit) is one more than personal hero Judy Blume, whose books were a refuge for Kelly in her youth. (Kelly won the Newbery in 2018 for “Hello, Universe,” while Blume was consistently snubbed by the awards committee). At 12, Kelly struggled to find her place among the noisy adolescent crowd in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where she was raised. With onyx hair and eyes to match, and as the daughter of a Filipino immigrant mother who “ate weird food” and spoke broken English, Kelly was lonely. She was also trying to sidestep the detritus of her parents’ divorce. It was tough stuff for a sensitive child, who says she often wished on a Cajun crescent moon for blue eyes and a place to belong. Enter Blume.
“‘Blubber,’ ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’—these were my touchstone titles,” Kelly says. “Reading was a nice distraction from the fact that no one in my neighborhood looked like me.”
From there it was on to Sweet Valley High and Stephen King, with a V.C. Andrews pit stop. “Which is a problem I’m glad we don’t have anymore, thanks in part to what Harry Potter did for children’s publishing—there’s a place to go now between Judy Blume and Stephen King,” she says.
“Am I writing to the younger me? I think I am. There is connective tissue between them of otherness, of the characters being underestimated by others and themselves.” —Erin Entrada Kelly
Kelly is now a major player in that space. With a staggering publishing rate of a book a year since 2015—“but not in a ‘gotta get that paycheck’ way,” she emphasizes—her sixth book, “We Dream of Space,” will be released in May 2020.
Before she found her middle-grade groove, Kelly tried adult fiction. “I could never get past page 50 before it just died,” she says. “I got bored.” So she switched to short stories, which publishers ate up. That was when she discovered one popular element. “Even though these were short stories for adults, every single one had a character between the age of 8 and 12,” she says. “I couldn’t stop writing coming-of-age stories that hinged on small, defining moments.” Now, Kelly writes exclusively about (and, perhaps, to) lonely kids who feel left out, who are different and struggling. “Am I writing to the younger me? I think I am,” Kelly says. “There is connective tissue between them of otherness, of the characters being underestimated by others and themselves.”
She also populates her books with the types of kids her younger self desperately sought to find. “There are a lot of elements of Filipino folklore in my books, but you’ll also find rich, culturally diverse characters,” she says.
“Hello, Universe,” which won her the Newbery in 2018, is carried by four main characters: Virgil, a Filipino-American; Valencia, who is deaf; Kaori, a Japanese-American; and Chet, the schoolyard bully. “Maybe weirdly, it took some unlearning and awakening in myself to realize I could be writing about black-haired, black-eyed kids with parents from another country,” she says.
In addition to young readers, Kelly can count streaming service Netflix and actor Forest Whitaker among the fans of “Hello, Universe.” The pair has teamed up to adapt the book into a live-action family film (there was no final release date as of press time).
“Sometimes I would walk around and [think], I won the Newbery. How did that happen?” she says. “And now I’m like, my book is being made into a movie. What?”
Kelly’s most recent work, “Lalani of the Distant Sea,” is, in Potter parlance, about a muggle hell-bent on saving her world. Published in September 2019, the novel is rife with girl power, Filipino culture, danger and self-acceptance. “Lalani is just an ordinary girl. She’s not magic [and doesn’t have] superpowers, but her village is in peril and she can save it,” Kelly explains. “This book is very much about an ordinary girl on an extraordinary adventure.”
Sounds like someone else we know.