I recently had the pleasure of talking to 2018 Newbery Winner, Erin Entrada Kelly, about her her newest middle-grade novel You Go First, which hit bookstores this week. In addition to winning the Newbery for Hello, Universe, Erin has won many other awards for her middle-grade novels, including the 2017 APALA Award for The Land of Forgotten Girls and the 2016 Golden Kite Honor Award for Blackbird Fly. You Go First was a Spring Indie Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild Selection.
Erin was raised in Louisiana, but now lives in the Philadelphia area. She is a professor of children’s literature in the graduate fiction and publishing programs at Rosemont College. Erin is also a short story writer. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Pushcart Prize. Erin has a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and liberal arts from McNeese State University and an MFA in creative writing from Rosemont. Welcome, Erin!
First let me say congratulations on winning the Newbery Medal and on the release this week of your fourth middle-grade novel. I know that you’re also an accomplished short story writer, and I’m wondering what attracts you to writing for the eight-to-twelve-year-old reader. In my opinion, it’s one of the most important phases of life. Tweens are not quite children, but not quite teenagers. At that age — particularly 11 and 12, which is the age of virtually all my characters — you’re looking for acceptance from your peers and trying to figure out who you are as an individual. Unfortunately, these two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. You want to be yourself, but you also want to fit in, so the pressure to conform is palpable. It’s a difficult age. It takes resilience to emerge unscathed. I remember being 12 as easily as I remember yesterday. That’s how weighty, difficult, and impressionable that phase was for me.
You Go First is such a heartfelt novel about two lonely kids who live far apart. What was the spark that gave you the idea to write about these two characters? Thank you! I wanted to write about two people who struggle with the pressures of middle school and tweendom while dealing with their unusual adult sensibilities. I love writing about underdogs and outcasts, and Charlotte and Ben are both of those things.
One of the many things I loved about You Go First was all the interesting facts at the beginning of Charlotte’s chapters. I pictured your head spinning with all of that wonderful knowledge. I’m curious as to whether you were like Charlotte and had been collecting these facts all your life or whether you looked them up specifically for the novel. Most of Charlotte’s “rabbit holes” were specifically researched for the book, but there were several that I already knew. I’ve traveled down many rabbit holes in my life. When I was a kid, I loved looking things up in the encyclopedia. This was before the internet, back when people actually had encyclopedia sets. I would sit down, pick a letter, open a page, and start reading.
One thing that struck me while reading the two point-of-view characters in You Go First is that although you’re writing in third person, it feels like first person. We’re so much in the minds of these characters. Can you share your secret on how you do this? I wish I could! I’m not sure how it happens. My characters come to me fully formed before I ever put a word on paper. I get to know them very well.
The characters in your novels tend to be outsiders. Is there a reason you’re attracted to writing that type of character? Because I was an outsider, and I know how difficult it can be. I have an affinity for kids (and adults) who veer away from the beaten path. It takes moxie to be an outsider. And they are often underestimated — by themselves and others.
I know you’re a professor of writing, and I’m sure our readers, who might also be writers, would love to hear a couple of your best tips on how to create the type of characters you write about–characters with a great deal of depth, heart, and authenticity. What an incredible compliment! A few pieces of advice I like to give: Know what your character is most afraid of. Know what they want most out of life. And find out how they feel about their name. Names are very personal. You’d be surprised the things our characters will reveal when we ask them how they feel about theirs.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? I’m currently working on my first MG fantasy, which is inspired by Filipino folklore. I can’t wait to share it with readers. It’s tentatively scheduled for summer 2019.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Thank YOU!
Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard and eleven-year-old Ben Boxer are separated by more than a thousand miles. On the surface, their lives seem vastly different—Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while Ben is in the small town of Lanester, Louisiana. Charlotte wants to be a geologist and keeps a rock collection in her room. Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, presidential history, and recycling. But the two have more in common than they think. They’re both highly gifted. They’re both experiencing family turmoil. And they both sit alone at lunch. Over the course of a week, Charlotte and Ben—online friends connected only by a Scrabble game—will intersect in unexpected ways, as they struggle to navigate the turmoil of middle school.