Fil-Am Newbery Medalist’s next book is inspired by PH folklore
Shortly after winning the most prestigious prize in American children’s literature, Filipino-American author Erin Entrada Kelly is writing about Filipino folklore in her next novel.
Kelly, who is in Manila to speak at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival 2018 at Raffles Makati and thanks to National Book Store told the Inquirer: “It is still coming out in 2019 and it has a title. The title is ‘Leilani of the Distant Sea,’ and I just sent it to my editor four days ago. It’s a fictional society, so it’s not expressly the Philippines, but it’s very much inspired by Filipino folklore that I’ve read and researched. (It is) in addition to things from my own imagination, (and it’s) all coming together for this story, so I’m really excited about it.”
Kelly has been working on the book, originally titled “The Girl with the Golden Feet” for a while now. Kelly often featured Filipino characters and themes in her middle-grade novels. She received the John Newbery Medal—popularly known simply as the Newbery Medal—
from the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association in early 2018 for her novel “Hello, Universe.” The honor had previously been given to distinguished authors such as Madeleine L’Engle for “A Wrinkle in Time” (1963), Lois Lowry for “The Giver” (1990) and Neil Gaiman for “The Graveyard Book” (2009).
“Hello, Universe” published in 2017 by Greenwillow Books, is about 11-year-old Filipino-American Virgil Salinas, who has vanished after falling down a well to rescue his pet guinea pig Gulliver, and how his friends, all very different, attempt to rescue him as well.
Kelly carries characters in her head for months at a time and then writes in streaks. Virgil was very full-formed by the time Kelly began writing about him in a notebook. “One thing I did purposefully is that Virgil is very shy and sensitive,” she said. “I think it’s very important for books to have boys who are shy, sensitive and not good at sports. I want readers to know that if you’re all those things, it’s OK. You don’t have to be strong and loud. You can still be strong even if you’re quiet.”
Kelly’s previous books, “Blackbird Fly” (2015) and “The Land of Forgotten Girls” (2016) both featured characters of Filipino descent and references to Filipino culture.
These reflect Kelly’s own background, the daughter of a mother from Southern Leyte and a father form Kansas. Kelly grew up in Louisiana and began writing at age 8. She now resides in Philadelphia.
Kelly’s book immediately after winning the Newbery was “You Go First,” which is her only book without a Filipino element. “There’s no strong Filipino element in the book that’s only because when I try and come up with characters, I don’t want to make them Filipino if that’s not how they appear to me in my head,” she said. “So in the case, neither of them happen to be Filipino.”
“I think anytime I write, my personal experiences inform what I’m writing about,” she said. “Even in ‘You Go First,’ even if there’s no Filipino experience, when I was growing up, I felt very left out. An outcast because nobody knew what I was and there were no Filipinos. All that informs what I do, but one thing in my books, each of the Filipino characters, they’re all growing in the States because that was my experience growing up.”
“You Go First” is about the unusual friendship between two kids cultivated over the internet and the game Scrabble. Twelve-year-old Charlotte who lives near Philadelphia, and 11-year-old Ben from Louisiana (yes, Kelly’s hometowns) struggle through growing up, bullies and absent parents. Originally pretending to be other people, they find each other and discover what they share. “I wanted to show that whether you live in a big city or a small town, the things that we go through we still have in common, it doesn’t matter where you are, Kelly explained. “People go through similar experiences, and that’s what I wanted to show and connect those two parts of my life.”
That goes with the choice of Scrabble as a connective tissue. “I love board games and I’m fascinated by board game culture,” she said. “Scrabble is kind of a universal game and really lends itself to an online community. People think I’m good at Scrabble because I wrote about it, but I’m terrible at it.”
This is actually Kelly’s first time in Manila. “My mom’s from Leyte, and lives in Cebu, so I’ve been there but I’ve never been to Manila,” she admits. Her mother flew in from Cebu to be with her and so they hope to squeeze in some sightseeing.
Life after winning the Newbery has been markedly different. There is even interest in adapting “Hello, Universe” for the screen, though Kelly can’t really talk too much about it yet.
Kelly has a new book on the shelves and a new book winging its way toward publishing, but she understands how much of a gift and an opportunity receiving the Newbery Medal represented. “It has changed overnight,” Kelly said of her life. “I was working full time (as a copy editor) but now I write full time. So that’s the biggest change. I’ve been traveling and just the interest and the exposure (is so different).”
But winning the Newbery in 2018 has a much deeper meaning for her as well. “This was the first year all the honorees were people of color and that makes me so happy because when I was growing up I didn’t see books about Filipinos,” Kelly said.
“I didn’t see books about Asians even. When I wrote—I started writing when I was 8
—all the stories I wrote growing up had white girls as characters. What I hope is that whatever your ethnicity is, when you sit down to write stories that you make up, you know that the characters can look like you. They can look however you look. They don’t have to be beautiful. They don’t have to be white. It doesn’t matter. That’s what I want. The thing that makes me happiest about the Newbery is that all these cultures that American readers didn’t have before, including Filipino, they have now because of the exposure.”
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