Fil-Am author Erin Entrada Kelly on bullying, hope, and her new Filipino folklore-inspired book

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Newbery Medal winner Erin Entrada Kelly talks about the books that she grew up with (spoiler alert: they’re mostly written by white authors), the negative feedback from her young readers, and her upcoming fantasy book which draws inspiration from Filipino folklore. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

UPDATE: "Hello, Universe" has been picked up by Netflix for a live-action movie adaptation. Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker ("Black Panther") will be co-producing the movie and Michael Golamco (“Always Be My Maybe”) will be adapting the book. 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Erin Entrada Kelly has been writing since she was eight years old but it wasn’t until she was in her 20’s that she realized she’d been publishing short stories which had characters who were aged 10, 11, or 12, even though these stories were written for adults.

“I realized that that age is a very interesting age,” says Kelly, who was recently in Manila for the Readers and Writers Festival 2018. “You’re starting to look to your friends for approval, you want to fit in, and you want everyone to notice you but you also don’t want everyone to notice you [Laughs]. You’re trying to figure out how to do all these things in this world that we live in. So that can make it very challenging. There’s a lot of opportunities to tell stories so that’s what kind of drew me to that.”

The Filipino-American recently won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious prize in Children’s Literature, for her novel “Hello, Universe.” It features a young boy, Virgil (short for Virgilio), stuck in a well. Virgil has a wild imagination, thanks mostly to the stories of his lola who told him grisly tales of child-eating trees, monster birds, and sad kings.

Her writing owes much to her Filipino heritage, though she initially struggled with it first. When she was in school, being the only Asian meant being bullied by her classmates and it made her resent her mother’s cultural background (she was born in Sogod, Southern Leyte). But, much like Kelly’s characters in her books, she learned to overcome it and put her experience of social isolation and being bullied in many of her writings, like in “Hello, Universe” and her latest book, “You Go First.” And the reception has been very positive.

“I get a lot of letters and emails from FIlipino Americans,” she says. “Young people and their parents and their families saying thank you. I also get a lot of emails from white kids who [say] that the bottom line is we all know what it feels like to be left out, to want to fit in, to feel different. So it doesn’t matter if you’re Filipino or white, it’s something that we all can relate to. People of all backgrounds obviously are bullied. I get a lot of letters and emails from kids who are bullied who are just happy to see that they’re not alone.”

“Hello, Universe” is Kelly’s third book and had earned her the 2018 Newbery Medal, the prestigious award that recognizes achievement in American literature for children. Previous winners include Neil Gaiman for “The Graveyard Book,” Lois Lowry for “The Giver,” and Madeleine L'Engle for “A Wrinkle in Time.”

In “You Go First,” there are no fantastic stories that come to life but Kelly goes a little deeper in tackling the loneliness of being a child. The story focuses on two brilliant, yet socially withdrawn middle school kids, Ben and Charlotte, who live far away from each other yet share a link and many commonalities. Together, they help each other deal with surviving school, family problems, and betrayal. And in between, there’s Scrabble, lessons on leadership, and art history.

CNN Philippines Life talks to Kelly about the books that she grew up with (spoiler alert: they’re mostly written by white authors), the negative feedback from her young readers, and her upcoming fantasy book which draws inspiration from Filipino folklore. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Are there written or unwritten rules about writing children’s books?

You never want to write down to kids and [you want] to respect them as young readers and respect them as three dimensional people with their own opinions. They have a lot of opinions, ideas, and thoughts. I think adults sometimes, when we think about kids, we think of them as a little naive, waiting to grow up, but we forget to think of them as their own person. They have their own thoughts about the world.

What role does language play when you don’t want to “talk down” to your audience?

Before I start writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters and what they sound like. I think some writers are more suited to write for certain audiences than others and I find young people much more interesting and imaginative and creative than grown ups [Laughs]. I’m very inspired by them all the time. I think it’s kind of easy for me to get into their head and think about what their language sounds like, I think I have more trouble writing for adults. It’s just about what we tap into.

What kind of kids are you surrounded by?

I’m surrounded by all different kids. I do a lot of school visits, I talk to a lot of young people. And what’s interesting to me is how the more you travel, people are different but … even though people have different ethnicities, backgrounds, there are things that we have in common. So that’s what I kind of want to tap into. I’ve talked to kids as young as second or third grade. I usually don’t talk to high school [kids], but as old as eighth grade. It’s just funny how the different age groups you talk to, the different personalities that they have, because the older they get, the more they’re trying to be cool.

"I think one of the things that my books have in common is I want to share this idea to embrace who you are," shares Kelly. "That’s kind of the mission statement of all my books ... to love who you are and don’t let other people define who you are for you." Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Do you think that’s where the difficulty of relating to older kids come from?

Yeah. I think because as they get older, they get even more and more self-conscious. So if I talk to a fourth grade [group] and ask if they have questions, everyone has a question. And they all have five questions each. But the older you get the less they want to raise their hand. So that does make it a little difficult. Because when I talk to young people, I can be goofy and silly. I think young kids appreciate that. The older they get, the more they don’t want to laugh because they want to look cool [Laughs].

When you write stories, is there some kind of specificity that you aim to write about?

I think one of the things that my books have in common is I want to share this idea to embrace who you are. That’s kind of the mission statement of all my books is to love who you are and don’t let other people define who you are for you.

Does race play a big part in what you write?

I think it does in the fact that everything that I write has a piece of myself in it. I’m always writing from things that I’ve experienced, things that are important to me and it’s really important to me to not just share my experiences growing up as the only Filipino in my neighborhood or in my school but also to show what our world looks like. In “Hello, Universe,” there’s a Japanese character, there’s a deaf character, they’re people who live in our community.

Our books and our films and our commercials, they should all depict what our world looks like. That’s something that I’m always aware of and that’s something that’s important to me. Especially now in the States, it’s charged, there’s some social upheaval going on and there are a lot of communities that are being told that they’re not welcome or that they’re not Americans or that they’re criminals, just based only on their race, which obviously is horrifying and scary. It’s also very important for me that young people who are part of those communities who are being marginalized to see that they still have a safe space and that’s not how everyone feels.

What kind of children’s books did you grow up with?

I read a lot of Judy Blume. All the books that I’ve read all have white characters [Laughs]. So I’m happy that today, people are more and more [able to] have access to books that have other faces on them. I wish there had been books with Filipinos or even Asian characters. But I grew up reading a lot of authors who wrote great books but they’re all white. I think it’s important for young people to see themselves in books so that they know if that’s all you read and all you see are light skin, light hair, light eyes, you’re thinking that that’s something you’re supposed to be. So I’m hoping that as time goes on, kids will see more and more that there are different kinds of things you can be and things that you are. And it’s all good. It doesn’t have to be that one basis.

Erin Entrada Kelly's writing owes much to her Filipino heritage, though she initially struggled with it first. But much like Kelly’s characters in her books, she learned to overcome it and put her experience of social isolation and being bullied in many of her writings, like in “Hello, Universe” and her latest book, “You Go First.” Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

One thing I love about reading children’s books is that you get reminded of how it really is to be a kid. Because when you’re older, there are things you forget and you have this idealized version of childhood. How do you want to immerse you readers, of all ages, in that idea?

As we get older, we only tend to remember the happy things. The problem with that is we no longer take young people seriously as we get older. We want them to listen to us and respect us but we don’t always want to listen to them and respect them. But respect is always earned. When a child is saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” or being very polite, there’s a difference between respect and obedience. We have to respect young people just as we expect them to respect us. The way we do that is by listening to them and taking them seriously.

Have you had kids tell you what they want to read about?

They don’t necessarily tell me what they want to read about. Sometimes they ask if I’m gonna write a sequel [Laughs]. A lot of them mostly want to talk about how they’re being bullied or how they’re being treated in school. And the best is when they feel like they learned to stand up for themselves or stand up to someone else because they read one of my books, because they read a book where a character did that. I think that’s what it’s all about, changing lives even if just a little bit.

In your books, you’ve had an affinity for children who are actively intellectual but lacking in social skills. What draws you to these characters?

I think one of the things that appeals to me about that is that I really have an affinity for young people who are different, who are left out. I feel like what happens is if you’re a misfit kid, it’s easy for you to go unnoticed and then you start to feel like you’re invisible in the world. It’s important for me because I was a kid like that. They know that they’re seen and they’re valued, that they’re important. Those are things that I didn’t know when I was a kid so that’s what I want to bring to them.

You’re writing a fantasy book partly influenced by Pinoy folklore. Can you talk about that?

It’s about a 12-year-old girl named Leilani. She lives in a fictional island and they’re having a lot of challenges because it hasn’t rained in a very long time. Their crops are failing. There’s a legend on their island that there’s a mountain across the distant sea that has all of life’s good fortunes on it. So every year or so, men sail off on this island but never return. For all these various reasons, 12-year-old Leilani sets off to find this fictional island. I did a lot of research and Filipino readers, and all readers I think will find familiar things, folklore-wise, especially trees, they play a very special part in the book so I’m very excited.

How dark can you go when you write your books? In “You Go First,” divorce plays a large part and one of the characters is weighed down by it. There’s also the physicality of being bullied in “Hello, Universe.”

I go as far as where the story will take me and that’s one thing about Leilani’s story. I started writing it around the time of the elections, because I wanted to write a story about hardship and hope and so it’s very dark. It’s fantasy so it’s different but it’s definitely my darkest book yet. But the thing about darkness is whenever you’re [in it], hope shines even brighter, right? The further away you are from hope then you are on your journey back, it’s even more incredible. That’s why I think it’s important to write books that have darkness and sadness, we all experience it. It’s important to know that whenever you are in darkness and sadness, it’s so important to hold on to hope, even if it’s just one little kernel, you’re just holding on as tight as you can. It’s important to never let it go because that’s what keeps us going.

What’s the most interesting feedback that you’ve got from your readers?

Young people are very honest, so I would get emails from young people who did not like my book [Laughs]. It just makes me laugh because I think it’s funny that first of all, they took time to send me a little note but they have opinions, which I like. Whenever you go to readings and talk to adults they’re always very polite, the won’t tell you “I did not like your book!” But young people will always tell you. It’s refreshing. As we get older, we learn all these social [standards] that you’re not supposed to say this or that. It’s always great to be around kids who haven’t figured that out [Laughs].

Are there specific things that they didn’t like?

Sometimes they would say they didn’t like the ending or they would offer their own ideas [Laughs] for how the book should end. It always makes me smile. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t like it. I love that they’re reading books, for one thing. [Laughs]


Erin Entrada Kelly’s books are available in National Book Store and Powerbooks.