After the Call: On the Bookmark

In late 2018, I visited my local library to satisfy a very specific book mood. I wanted a rich, immersive, pitch-perfect middle-grade novel. I strolled to the children’s section and scanned the shelves. But there were so many choices! I needed a vetting process. Recommendations, maybe. I went to the librarian’s desk. She wasn’t there, but a rack of bookmarks sat on the corner, facing out, ready for eager hands. Newbery Medal Winners, 1922–2018.

Aha! I thought. What better place to find that rich, immersive, pitch-perfect middle-grade novel? I snatched up the bookmark and read off the titles, one by one. Then I reached the end.

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly.

I stared at that bookmark for a long time. Then I looked around, as if someone would be there, gesturing toward my name, saying, “Yes, that’s you.” Or, perhaps more likely, “Uh-oh, we need to send that thing back to the printer. Someone’s made a typo.”

I didn’t forget that I’d won the Newbery, you understand. I didn’t forget the infamous phone call. I didn’t forget the bushels of flowers from my agent and publisher. I certainly didn’t forget the ceremony.

It’s a thing you remember.

But I had entered the library as a reader, not an author. I’m a reader first — always — and like any reader, I wanted a good book. That’s what I was looking for when I picked up the bookmark. I wasn’t looking for my name. But there it was.

When I think of how the Newbery Medal has changed my life, I wonder: did it provide much-needed validation? A stamp, of sorts, that says, “Congratulations on being so talented!”? No. When I revised We Dream of Space that same year, I cried over the pages at my dining room table, thinking, This book is ­terrible. The Newbery Medal — no ­matter how shiny — doesn’t quiet doubting voices.

Did it give me swagger? A sense of vanity when I walk into a room? I have arrived, readers. Behold my greatness. Um, no. I don’t think I’ve ever had swagger in my life. I definitely didn’t have swagger when I spent hours in my room as a kid, my nose tucked in a book, wondering why I couldn’t be more like my sister, who was prettier and more popular, and had shelves packed with trophies.

Did it make me feel differently about Hello, Universe? No. I was proud of the book before it won the Newbery, and I’m proud of the book today. But each book is different. You do your best, you send it out into the world, and you wait to see what happens. Once it’s in the hands of readers, it becomes something different altogether. Writing is a solitary act. Publishing is a team effort. Reading is a relationship.

Hello, Newbery Medal! Photos courtesy of Erin Entrada Kelly.

When I reflect on how the Newbery has influenced my life, I think of all the new opportunities that have graced my path. School visits, speeches, endless book signings, earning out my advance, the New York Times Best Seller list, foreign rights deals, on and on. All the logistical stuff, the stuff you can hold in your hand.

But it’s more than that. It’s the opportunity to support other authors. It’s connecting with far more readers than I’d ever imagined. It’s a kid telling me that they sleep with my book under their pillow. Or the girl who sent me an email that said, “I’ve read your book so many times, the spine is cracked, but I don’t care.” It’s the young readers who tell me I’m their favorite author. (Or, in some cases, their “second favorite,” which always delights me.)

Those are the moments that bring me back to the little girl in her bedroom, the one with her nose in a book, the one scribbling stories on loose-leaf paper. I am still that little girl. And I’m still standing in that library, staring at that bookmark, wondering how this all happened.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Erin Entrada Kelly

Erin Entrada Kelly won the 2018 Newbery Medal for Hello, Universe, and a 2021 Honor for We Dream of Space. Her latest book is The First State of Being; Felix Powell, Boy Dog is forthcoming (all published by Greenwillow).

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.