Erin Entrada Kelly is a New York Times bestselling author whose Middle Grade novels explore the challenges of growing up with humor, understanding, and hope. Often celebrating her own Filipino heritage, Erin’s stories champion the quiet voices, the outsiders, and give strength to sensitivity and compassion through characters navigating complex family and friendship issues. Her third book, Hello, Universe, won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2018. We’re excited to continue our da Shop Talk series with Middle Grade author Erin Entrada Kelly to discuss writing, reading, and her newest book, We Dream of Space.
So, maybe we should start from the beginning. How did you get drawn into storytelling?
I've loved books all my life. At some point--around age eight or so--I realized that books were just words on paper, and I had both. I loved the idea of creating a world that was just for me.
Were you always writing stories for a Middle Grade audience? And if not, what made you stick with it?
No. I originally intended to write for adults. Early in my career, I published several short stories, but I couldn't seem to finish any of my grown-up novels. When I looked at my short stories collectively, I realized they were all coming-of-age stories, with main characters between the ages of 8 and 12. There was something about that age range that appealed to me as a writer, and I didn't even realize it at the time. A light bulb went off. I started reading middle grade, discovered how rich and complex it is, and went to work. I had no trouble finishing those manuscripts. I'd found my voice.
What were your favorite Middle Grade books that you read? Or books that impacted you as a child?
As a kid, I loved Judy Blume. Later in life -- as an aspiring MG author -- the books that influenced me most were Notes from a Liar and Her Dog by Gennifer Choldenko and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.
Do you have a writing schedule or any pre-work rituals?
I do not have a writing schedule. The only pre-work ritual I have is making coffee. I have a process -- writing drafts in longhand, outlining, and so forth -- but I don't adhere to a schedule. Years ago I wrote a piece in Writer's Digest about being a writer with no routine. (Read her Writer’s Digest article here)
Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, We Dream of Space, and your inspiration to write it?
We Dream of Space is the story of three siblings -- Fitch, Bird, and Cash Nelson Thomas -- who are in seventh grade together in Park, Delaware, in the weeks leading to the Challenger disaster. The novel is set during January 1986. Although the impending Challenger launch plays a foundational role in the novel, it's ultimately about family. Specifically, a toxic and dysfunctional family, and three unmoored siblings who are trying to find their way.
I'd wanted to write about the Challenger launch for a long time, because it was such a memorable event from my childhood. And I also wanted to write about a dysfunctional family. The two eventually met, and became this novel.
Can you share about any projects on your creative bucket list?
I'm currently working on a chapter book series about a biracial Filipino girl named Marisol. I'm also illustrating, which is very exciting! The first book is scheduled for release next year. As for other projects on my bucket list -- there are many. Too many to name!
You recently spent some time in Hawai‘i as the Keables Chair at ‘Iolani School. Hopefully during your time here, you got to sight see a little bit and experience the local culture. Any highlights?
Visiting your bookstore was a highlight, of course! And all the incredible food. I really enjoyed my trip to the palace, too. I was so moved by Queen Lili'uokalani's quilt. To be honest, the entire trip was a highlight. I had withdrawals after I came home.
If you could take any writer (living or dead) on a destination picnic who would it be? Where would you go? And what would you talk about?
There's an old saying, 'never meet your heroes.' When I discover someone is a terrible person, it's difficult for me to enjoy their work. So I would choose a writer who I find interesting, but don't idolize. That way, if he/she turned out to be a jerk, it wouldn't be devastating. So, using that logic, I'd go on a picnic William Shakespeare. That's a really cliche answer, but Shakespeare was so influential on Western literature and we know very little about him. We would go to the English countryside. He would drink tea. I would have coffee. And I'd ask him a million questions.
Can you share with us five favorite books? Or, the last five books you read and loved?
I've read 34 books so far this year. The five standouts are A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat and Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, which are both middle grade; Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, which is by far the most compelling biography I've ever read; Pointe, a gritty young adult novel by Brandy Colbert; and Our Little Secret by Roz Nay, a twisted tale of love and revenge. My daughter loves thrillers, so I gave her my copy of Our Little Secret and she loved it, too. It keeps you guessing to the end.
Activities when not writing?
Not surprisingly, I read a lot. It is, by far, the activity that takes up most of my time. I also love to draw, mostly simple pen and ink illustrations, like those that will appear in the chapter book series. I often post those drawings to my Instagram. I watch a lot of Twilight Zone reruns -- the original, with Rod Serling -- even though I've seen them all. And I cuddle my puppy as much as I can. I also have a hedgehog, but he's not quite as cuddly.
Mahalo to Erin Entrada Kelly for making the time to talk with us. You can connect with Erin on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Check out www.erinentradakelly.com for teaching resources for her books, ways to get in touch for school events, and more!