Erin Entrada Kelly Wins The Newbery Medal
By Justin Morris
I share a birthday with some pretty cool people — the great Freddie Mercury, Werner Herzog, Jesse James, King Louis XIV and even a James Bond (George Lazenby), to name a few. I can now add to that list an award-winning children’s author who just happens to have her roots right here in the Lake City.
I can’t honestly tell you when I first met Erin Entrada Kelly. Probably, it was back in my broadcast journalism days. But it seems now like she’s always been one of those Facebook friends that I would be wishing a wry “Happy Birthday” to while my inbox blew up with the same kind of wishes from friends.
Indeed, it was that very social media behemoth that let me in on some surprising news a couple of weeks ago. Kelly, now a children’s author based in the Philadelphia area, had just received word that her latest book, Hello, Universe, had been chosen as this year’s recipient of the John Newbury Medal — easily one of, if not the most, prestigious awards in the realm of American children’s literature.
If you can hearken back to those elementary library days, you may remember seeing books festooned with one of two notable shiny foil badges: the gold one being The Caldecott Medal for the “Most distinguished American Picture Book for Children,” and the Newbery, for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Both awards are given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.
This year, the group tapped Kelly as the 97th recipient of the prize since its inception in 1922, and added Hello, Universe to the ranks of such seminal works as The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, The White Stag, Daniel Boone, A Wrinkle in Time, Bridge to Terabithia, Sarah, Plain and Tall and The Tale of Desperaux.
Since the award was announced on Feb. 11, Kelly’s name, image and voice have been shared by some of the biggest names in journalism: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s All Things Considered and many others. But the former Lake Charles American Press staffer didn’t forget about her beloved hometown, and took some time out of her brisk interview schedule to catch up with us on what life as an award-winning author is all about.
Justin Morris: First of all, a huge congratulations to you on quite the prestigious honor. How are you feeling right now and what have things been like for you since you received word that you won? What was that moment like for you?
Erin Entrada Kelly: It was surreal. I still can’t wrap my head around it. My life changed as soon as the announcement was made. My phone exploded. My email box flooded. Nothing will ever be the same.
JM: To many, the Newbery would be, essentially, the “book of the year” award for children’s books. However, the precise description of the prize states that it is for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Aside from the sales and successful book tours you’ve had in support of it, what about Hello, Universe, to you, makes this book significant in that regard, and what topics did you try to address in this and your other works?
EK: All of my books celebrate the underdog. Most of them also deal with the immigrant experience. Bullying, racism and twisted middle-school dynamics are other common themes. My goal is for readers to leave my books knowing they aren’t alone.
JM: How long ago did you leave Lake Charles and what do you miss about living here?
EK: I left in March, 2012. I really miss the food. My first book, Blackbird Fly, is very much associated with my experience growing up in Lake Charles.
JM: Aside from Southwest Louisiana, there are other big traces of your family and cultural history that have been consistent throughout your work. Tell us about that and why making that part of your stories is so important to you?
EK: I’m half Filipino. Unfortunately, not many people know about the rich background and magic of the Philippines. I love introducing people to Filipino culture — the idioms, the food, the mindset. It took a long time for me to embrace my heritage. And now that I have, I want to share it with others.
JM: What made you decide on children’s books, and are there any other types of writing that you have done or would like to do?
EK: I’ve published lots of short stories. But I am committed to writing for young people. I find them much more interesting than adults.
JM: Since Hello, Universe, you have written your fourth book You Go First, due out this April. Tell us about that story.
EK: “You Go First” is the story of Charlotte Lockard, who lives just outside Philly, and Ben Boxer, who lives in the fictional town of Lanester, La. They’re connected only by online gaming. But their lives parallel in several ways. They’re both highly gifted social outcasts trying to navigate a world that makes little sense to them.
JM: To any young writers (or maybe some of us not-so-young writers) who want to explore and create new words and people and places, what is your best advice to the aspiring author to see continued growth and success in their craft?
EK: Read — a lot. Learn how to accept feedback and criticism. Have an open mind. Most important, use your imagination. Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean it’s gone.
The story in question, Hello, Universe, tells the tale of four neighborhood children: Virgil, Chet, Valencia and Kaori, who find themselves thrust together after a prank by Chet leaves Virgil and his pet guinea pig, Gulliver, trapped at the bottom of an abandoned well. The remaining trio (joined by Kaori’s little sister, Gen) strike out on an adventure to save the two who are trapped in the well. They learn a great deal about courage, friendship and each other in the process.
Since its March release, Kelly has toured the book extensively across the U.S. It’s found itself sitting at No. 4 on the New York Times Book Review Children’s bestseller list.
Hello, Universe is on stands, and is available in print, e-book and audiobook formats. You Go First, also published by HarperCollins, is due out on April 10.