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Hello, Erin Entrada Kelly: Profile of the 2018 Newbery Medal winner

Chapter 1
The Bottom of the Earth

One year ago, the mountain above Dimagabi cracked and fell on everything below. The village was invaded by heavy waves of soft mud, uprooted grass, and broken coconut trees, killing everything in less than five minutes. When the mud dried, all of Dimagabi was buried beneath it — parents, children, goats, chickens, pigs, carabao, houses. The land doesn’t care who it buries, because the land was here before us. God made the land first.

There was only one thing left of Dimagabi: Manang Glenda’s sari-sari store. In the Kalawakan barangay of the Philippines, where I live, a sari-sari store is a hut made of bamboo and nipa leaves, where Filipinos buy the little things that help them survive. Little things like soap, toothpaste, aspirin, and hairbrushes. Usually there is a Filipina woman behind the counter, staring down the dirt road. People walk by and say “Kumusta,” which means “How are you?” And the woman says “Mabuti,” which means “Fine.” This was Manang Glenda, before the mudslide. After the mudslide, she was buried with the pigs and the carabao. But her store — her store full of little things — still stood.

God saved that sari-sari store for me.

* * *

I first read Erin Entrada Kelly’s work in 2012. It was a manuscript called “Mayumi of the Water,” and it arrived via email, unannounced, from a literary agency I wasn’t then familiar with. It really is true that timing is everything. Or maybe Ruby San Salvador was looking out for me. I opened the email and read on. I ultimately turned the manuscript down — it was very quiet (even for me, champion of books where “nothing happens”); our industry wasn’t embracing historical fiction in 2012 (especially when it was set in other countries); and I just couldn’t face the questions I’d get about the P&L at acquisitions — but I asked the agent to continue to send Erin’s work, because I wanted to read more of it. You’ll doubt me, I know, but I very clearly remember thinking that she wrote sentences like an award winner.

Even now, six years later, I can vividly recall scenes, descriptions, and moments from “Mayumi of the Water.” Just as scenes, characters, and moments from Blackbird Fly — Erin’s first published novel, which Greenwillow released, in 2015 — and her 2016 novel The Land of Forgotten Girls (and, of course, Hello, Universe and You Go First) still pop into my head unexpectedly. Hello, Virgil! When you read a manuscript four, five, six times — and when I say “read” I mean “editor read,” which is the equivalent of saying each sentence out loud in your head so that you can think about it but also feel it — you tend to live deeply in the world the author has created.

But what I love most about Erin’s writing is the voice. Clear, precise, specific, often funny, hopeful, true, pointed, and always, always, respectful of the intelligence of her reader. It’s this essential voice that has the power to reach and resonate with a wide audience of readers: those struggling to survive middle school; those looking for a mirror; those trying to find their own voices; those mourning the loss of a friendship; those praying someone will hear them; those, like my own daughter, who finish Hello, Universe and announce, “This book makes me want to write.”

Erin Entrada Kelly was born in 1977 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her mother, Virgilia Sy Entrada, was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States, traveling from Sogod, in Southern Leyte province in the Philippines, to marry Erin’s father, Dennis Ray Kelly. Growing up, Erin was the only Filipino kid in her class — she doesn’t remember any other children of immigrants in her school save for her sister, Anna — and there were very few Asians in her town. She wanted desperately to fit in, to look like everyone else, to have blue eyes, to be “normal.” Her experiences being bullied and being the outsider during those years inspire and inform her characters, from Apple Yengko’s third-place position on the “dog log” (the list of the ugliest girls at Chapel Spring Middle School), to the vividly imaginative sisters Sol and Ming and their isolation in the Magnolia Tower apartments, to Virgil’s paralyzing shyness and raw encounters with Chet, to Ben Boxer’s heartbreaking attempts to win friends.

An avid reader from the beginning, Erin first started to write when she was eight or so, filling her notebooks with snippets and doodles and lists and stories. Erin was initially self-taught, and her first short story, “The Legend of Fidela,” was published in a literary magazine called Story Philippines in 2008. As a young single mom, Erin worked at a newspaper while going to college — taking one class per semester, finally earning her bachelor’s degree after ten years — but found time to hone her craft when her daughter, Carolanne, was sleeping. She went on to get her MFA from Rosemont College, where she is now a professor of children’s literature in the graduate fiction and publishing programs.

I’m always scared to meet authors. Terrified, actually. Especially if I love their writing. I’m like one of Erin’s characters — my mind whirls and redness creeps into my face, and I have absolutely nothing to say in person. What’s on the page is what matters to me. So I was horrified when Erin, shortly after she’d signed her contract for that first book, emailed to say she was coming to BookExpo and was hoping we could meet. The only thing I dread more than meeting an author for the first time is BookExpo. And she didn’t even have an actual book yet! Why in the world did she want to go to BookExpo? This was certainly a recipe for disaster. We met for coffee in the Javits Center. And, of course, she was the best. As those of you who have met Erin already know and those of you who will meet her in the future will discover. And — what I didn’t understand then, but I do now (and I certainly should have remembered the feeling — it hasn’t been that long), is that in that big sparkling building full of books and the community of people who write and publish and read them, Erin had found her home.

Erin Entrada Kelly has a lot of books to write. She’s just getting started. She’s now revising (her favorite part of the process) her first fantasy for middle-grade readers. There’s a cracked mountain, and a mudslide, and a happy feeling of déjà vu. Will there be a girl named Mayumi? Maybe. If it’s meant to be.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Virginia Duncan About Virginia Duncan

Virginia Duncan is vice president and publisher of Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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