Growing up a reader, from Lake Charles, Louisiana
I grew up in a fairly small town in Louisiana, called Lake Charles, and you know, I was the only kid in my neighborhood who had an immigrant parent. My mother’s from the Philippines. And so I grew up looking very different from my peers and having a different cultural experience at home.
And that informs a lot of my writing. A lot of my books deal with kids who feel other or, you know, like they don’t quite fit in. And that very much speaks to my experience growing up in the south.
When I was young my writing very much emulated the books I was reading, so I had a Sweet Valley High knockoff series called the Golden Valley Twins. And I had a lot of books that kind of mirrored Judy Blume, because she was my favorite author. And I read, I’ve always been a reader for as long as I can remember. When I was young my mother would read me bedtime stories. We read a lot of The Cat in the Hat and Marvin K. Mooney, Won’t You Please Go Now! and The Monster at the End of This Book.
And what would usually happen is I wouldn’t be ready to stop reading so I would take the book and read to her and she would fall asleep. And then I’d just stay up and keep looking at books. So they’ve always been an escape for me.
Early beginnings as a writer
I started writing very young. I was probably about eight years old. And, you know, I was reading probably Judy Blume, one of those books, and I realized that books were words on paper and I had a lot to say, even at that age. Even though I was pretty quiet and introspective, but I still had, you know, obviously thoughts, feeling that I wanted to express.
And so I got paper, I got pencil and I started writing my own stories. And I was really overcome with this idea of being able to create something from nothing that was uniquely mine where anything could happen. And that still motivates me to this day. And even now I start my first drafts of my books on paper with pen and paper, just like I did when I was a kid. So I’ve been writing since I was about eight years old.
I shared mostly with my family, you know, my parents and my friends. I also did my own illustrations and I was convinced that, you know, one day one of the publishers would just call me and I would get all my books published just like Judy Blume, even though they were maybe like 20 pages on loose-leaf paper and stapled, you know.
And I would get cardboard and put cardboard on either side so it would be like a hard cover and I would tape the edges. So, yeah, it’s always been a part of who I am.
Learning about the world of publishing
Obviously I was a voracious reader and I was introduced to books a lot through obviously my school library, thankfully my school had one and Scholastic Book Fair and we had a set of encyclopedias at home. And I loved to pull out a random letter and just read about whatever was on the page and I would even read the copyright pages of books and the acknowledgements to try to figure out how did this actual thing happen. How did this book become a book?
I would read the Library of Congress, you know, information, everything, dedication. And as I got older I would read things like Reader’s Digest, right, so I would go to Walden Books. And even though I was maybe, you know, 12 or 13, you know, I would read writer’s magazines. And that’s how I gained a lot of knowledge, even at that young age of how publishing worked. And I would buy what was very expensive to me, which is like $29.95, right, the writer’s market, the big huge volumes.
I would buy those and take them home, you know, even though I was 13 or 14 and I would look at the agents, at the publishing houses and I would say one day I'm going to mail my manuscript to one of these places. So I’ve been informing myself, I guess you could say on the publishing process for a long time, because everything about books has always interested me, not just the putting the words down.
But I would think about, you know, how are they printed, who did the cover art, and how did this happen? And every aspect of it fascinates me, so I’ve been educating myself on it for a long time.
Putting something creative out into the universe
So when I was growing up it was very difficult to be kind of a quiet kid who was being bullied, who felt very different from everyone else. So for me books were an escape and writing was an escape. And, you know, a lot of people talked to me about drive and determination and where it came from and it’s not that I ever really thought about it, like, oh, I'm a very determined person, but what compelled me forward growing up was this idea that I had a dream and that one day something bigger could happen for me.
And, you know, at night sometimes I would be curled up in my bed with a blanket and crying and, you know, I couldn’t wait to get out of school, but it seemed like forever in the future, you know, because when you’re young time seems so long and short at the same time.
But I would think this is terrible now but one day something better will happen. And because I had that dream and that really solid belief, you know, I felt like I was going to make it happen. And I just kept going. So you know I would write, work on crafts, sent out short stories, get rejected. But I never let the rejection really get to me, because if I let that get to me then I would have to let go of that dream and let go of that security blanket and I wasn’t willing to do that.
So, you know, one thing that I tell young people when I speak to them is one of the most important things that we can do is create, whether it’s stories or music or singing in your room at the top of your lungs, no matter what you sound like, putting something out in the universe that you’ve created that’s just yours, is so important because there’s so little that we can control, but that’s one thing that we can control, what we create and what we put out there and what we do with it.
Seeing myself in a book
The first time I recall seeing an Asian character in a book was again Judy Blume. She had a book Just as Long as We’re Together and one of the characters, she wasn’t the main character, but she was one of the three best friends and she was an Asian character.
And I remember being fascinated by that because it wasn’t something that I had come across before. And, you know, another thing I like to tell young people is when I was growing up all the stories that I wrote for myself all had White girl characters and a lot of times they had blonde hair or they certainly weren’t a part of any marginalized community.
And one of the great things about this year’s Newbery honorees is that they’re all people of color. And the great thing is that young people today more and more will be able to see themselves in books and whenever they sit down to write when they’re eight years old like I was they’ll write characters that look like them because they’ll know that their stories are valid.
It never even occurred to me, even into adulthood to have a story with a Filipino character until I wrote Blackbird Fly, which was my first book. And that’s really sad, you know when you think about it. So I'm happy to be writing at a time right now where there’s more and more of those stories available so that people know that their stories are valuable and that they need to be heard.
Building compassion and empathy through books
I feel like it’s important for young readers to see themselves in books, but also to see others in books. You know there’s a lot of talk about books being mirrors and windows and I definitely believe that. Our society is multicultural. There’s so many different backgrounds of every kind, different abilities, different thought processes.
The value in seeing yourself is understanding that there is not necessarily an ideal that you need to look toward, but to know that you’re already ideal as you are. But also whenever you read about people who are outside of your experience the ability to build empathy and understanding of where other people come from and what other people are experiencing, because we all live in these bubbles, right, and it’s important for us to be able to peek inside someone else’s bubble if we can, because that’s how we become a more compassionate society.
And you know there’s a lot of studies that show readers tend to be more empathetic and that books help build empathy. And I mean what’s more important than that.
We need diverse books
We need diverse books because every story is valid and needs to be heard.
My writing process
My writing process always starts with a character and usually I’ll get a thought of a character or an idea of a character in my head. So in Hello Universe I had an image of a little boy named Virgil who was very quiet and shy and sensitive and I knew it was important to me to write a boy character who has those traits because we’re seeing a lot more very vocal and present girl characters, which is important, but it’s also important on the flipside to see sensitive boys.
He kind of came to me fully formed and I will usually see the character in a situation and I’ll start wondering why are they in that situation? What got them there? And in Virgil’s case I saw this boy who was trapped in a dark place and he’s calling for help and then there’s a girl who is above ground and she’s not helping him.
So then I have to say why isn’t she helping him? She seems perfectly nice. And then I realize it’s because she can’t hear him and that’s how Valencia came to be. And everything grows out from there. And then once I feel like I have kind of like a three-dimensional idea, I spend a lot of time in my head thinking about it, before I ever write it down.
And once I feel like I have that idea I get a notebook and I write it down and put pen to paper. And it kind of builds out from there. I’ll do a summary and then I’ll do a synopsis and then I’ll do a very fluid chapter outline that I follow and then I’ll just you know start writing.
So I usually have a road map, but sometimes it changes. But that’s my process. I also do a lot of doodling and you know I’ll use different colored pens. I feel like it’s important for me. I feel strongly about writing long hand because I feel like the more tactile senses are involved, kind of the more invested you are.
So I’ll use different colored pens so I have the tactile than I have the visual, I have the smell of the notebook and the smell of the ink and I love that whole process. And then once that’s done, I sit down and that’s whenever I type it up in a word doc and then send it off to my editor and then that starts the editorial process.
Subtlety and economy
I think all writers have their own style and it took me a while to figure out what my style was. And for whatever reason I had in my head when I was younger that the best writers are overly metaphoric and, you know, incredibly verbose and use these long flowing sentences. But the more that I would write, I realized that my style is a little bit more, I don't know what the word would be, but maybe economical. It feels like a very cerebral word, but we’ll use that.
I like to think of my writing style as subtle. By that I mean my goal in my books and a lot of the books that I like to read I really appreciate the value of subtlety.
And what I mean by that is life is full of all these little happenings, you know. It’s not often that there are big happenings, there are usually little steps that we take every day, every hour, every moment that kind of change and navigate the course of our lives. And because they’re not these big huge events sometimes our reactions to them in life are subtle and we may not even understand what’s going on.
There are moments in Hello Universe when Virgil cries out for help and it’s kind of a big loud moment. But a lot of the book is kind of peppered with more subtle feelings of emotion and anticipation and nervousness and all these little things that we experience in life. So my goal as a writer is to bring those things forward, so that people can relate to those emotions that are happening on the page, even little small moments that life is made of.
Giving voice to quiet characters
One of the challenges I face as a writer is because a lot of my characters are quiet, shy, introspective. I struggle with how to depict them interacting with their environment, because when you are quiet and shy oftentimes you’re very interior and it can be difficult and exhausting for a writer and reader to write interiority without an actual interaction with the external world.
So I think a lot about that and sometimes I’ll change the point of view. In Hello Universe one of the characters, Valencia, I use first person because she’s interacting with the reader. And with Virgil, he has a very important person in his life that he interacts with.
But it can be a challenge. And one of the things I love about writing long hand is that it allows me to cross things off and put new thoughts in thought bubbles and write little notes to myself. And those are things you can’t really do on a computer. So I feel like that experience even makes it more textured and three-dimensional of bringing a story forward and working through some of those challenges.
Different ways to be mighty
One of the most important messages that I hope comes through in all my books is that there are many different ways to be strong and mighty. There are many different ways to be brave. I think when you’re a quiet kid, when you’re an average student, when you fall somewhere in the middle it’s easy to get lost.
And it’s important for us to lift those kids up. But it’s important for those kids themselves to know that they’re strong and you don’t have to be the loudest, the bravest, prettiest, the most handsome, you just have to be the best version of yourself.
Exploring bullying in Hello, Universe
So with Chet, the bully in Hello, Universe, it’s probably the most discussed character when people talk about the book with me, because I wanted to depict kind of what he’s about. That was a struggle because I didn’t want it to be overly sympathetic to Chet, because he’s not a nice person.
But I also wanted to show where it comes from. And so I thought well, where would a kid like Chet, you know, people pick up these habits from all different places, and in his case it’s his father. And I wanted to show something that felt honest and subtle, so in the case with Chet his father is a bully but not necessarily in the sense that we typically think of the bully as a push and shoving somebody into lockers and this kind of thing.
He makes passing comments about others in the guise of trying to be funny or feelings of superiority being judgmental and it’s these kinds of overt methods of putting people down and judging others that plants the seed for Chet that he and/or his father are somehow better than. But at the same rate he is seeking out his father’s approval because his father is so judgmental and difficult to please or impress.
Chet struggles with his own conflicts, as everyone does, trying to get that approval, but also exercising his, you know, perceived power over people that he thinks aren’t as good as he is.
I hear from kids a lot who are being bullied, which is always sad. And I also hear ironically I will hear from grownups and they’ll tell me that oh, we don’t have bullying in our school. And lo and behold after the presentation kids will come up and they’ll say they’re being bullied. And so I hear from kids from all walks of life for all different reasons who connect with the books in all different ways, including by the way kids who do not even like the book.
Writing a deaf character with authenticity
In Hello Universe, the character, Valencia is deaf, and I am a hearing person and I don’t have a lot of experience with hard of hearing or deaf communities, so knowing that it was very important to me to depict her authentically, respectfully and three-dimensionally, especially right now as more marginalized voices are coming forward.
I was very aware to almost the point of panic that I was writing outside of my community. So I knew I needed to do, and I wanted to do a significant amount of research. And so I reached out to the American Society for Deaf Children and through Beth Benedict there I was introduced to a woman named Gina Oliva. And Gina is a deaf advocate. She is an author herself.
And she wrote a book about going to school in the mainstream as a deaf student. So I read the book of course and then I actually met her. And she was so welcoming, inviting and encouraged me to ask any question I had, even if it was embarrassing or maybe looked foolish. And I knew that I would have to ask them, even if I did look foolish, because she had to be depicted authentically.
I also took sign language classes at the Deaf Hearing Communication Center in Swarthmore, PA. And, you know, although Valencia doesn’t use sign language everything that when you’re researching, all of it informs, right? So I was able to interact with the instructor and ask her questions. So research was a key part of specifically Valencia. It’s a key part of any book.
But any time you’re writing about something that you’re not familiar with, obviously you have to do a significant amount of research. And it’s a great process, not just because it adds richness and authenticity to the book, but I'm just a curious person by nature so there’s hardly any topic that you could ask me to research that I won’t find interesting.
So just the value of researching, even if I don’t use all the information, is energizing and I love it. So I love to learn new things and, you know, I hope it informed the story well.
Honesty from my young readers
Young people are incredibly honest which is one of the reasons I love writing for them and talking to them, because, you know, they haven’t developed the filters yet so they’ll just be very straightforward and honest, which I love.
“I thought your book was boring.” It doesn’t bother me. I mean, of course not all kids are going to like all books. Just like not all adults are going to like all books. So I love hearing from kids, no matter what they thought of the book. I just like to know they’re reading.
Where the stories come from
Blackbird Fly was inspired by my own upbringing, growing up as the only Asian American or Filipino American in my school and kind of the cultural struggles between she [Apple] and her mother, but also she and her peers.
A Land of Forgotten Girls is my favorite. It celebrates imagination. And it’s about two sisters, Ming and Sol who are growing up in very dire circumstances, but they use their imaginations to escape, mentally escape what they’re going through. So it’s my letter to the celebration of imagination I’ll say.
Hello, Universe was inspired by Virgil actually and this idea of wanting to tell the story of a very shy sensitive boy, and it grew from there.
You Go First was inspired by this idea of lunch, which sounds strange, but you know when you’re in school lunch is a very precarious and scary time. So I wanted to write a book about two characters who eat lunch alone. And it’s how the story built. That’s where it came from.
Celebrating Filipino culture
A lot of my books are inspired by my mother. And she is from the Philippines and she loves to tell stories. She’s a very devout Catholic, so I grew up listening to a lot of stories about saints. And she would share these stories with such passion and an underlying morality of course and life lessons that they had offered and that very much informed specifically Hello Universe a character of Lola, the grandmother, and her use of folktales to impart her wisdom on Virgil.
And in my other books as well it’s very much mirroring my growing up and hearing, you know, I don’t speak Tagalog or any of the dialects, but of course I grew up hearing words peppered here and there. And so that’s incorporated in the books and also things of food, which is integral to any culture, also prevalent in the books. So, you know, it’s very much a reflection of the things I heard, felt, saw growing up.
I actually went to Manila for the readers and writers festival and it was my first trip back to the Philippines since my first book Blackbird Fly was published in 2015 and I was able to visit schools in Manila. And there’s this sense of nervousness at first because I’ve spoken to kids all across America and I’ve heard from Filipino American families, parents, readers, and it’s been really overwhelming. But there’s always that question I wonder how Filipinos will react or embrace books or relate.
And one thing that I’ve absolutely learned as a writer is that when you’re writing about real life, real emotions, feelings of loneliness, not fitting in and otherness, pretty much anyone can relate to, at least you hope they do, and it seems as if they do, because no matter the background we’ve all experienced what that’s like.
So I went to Manila and I spoke to the schools there. Of course everyone was excited and enthusiastic and so appreciative of Filipinos being depicted in literature and celebrating Filipino American culture.
Writing for children
I'm often asked why I write for the age group that I do. And for those who feel like the character is written authentically, which I always hope they are, how that happens.
In my case, middle school was a very difficult time in my life, probably the most difficult. And because of that I can still remember what being 12 felt like, what the school hallways smelled like, what sneakers sounded like against the floor, what it felt like to be picked last in gym.
All those things are still so palpable even decades later. And I think because that well is still so deep for me I'm able to tap into it. I have a harder time writing a book for grownups.
Why book choice matters
I’ve talked to kids who struggle with reading and adults and teachers, parents who struggle with the fact that their kids struggle with reading. And, you know, one of the greatest joys is to find out that one of my books excited them enough that they read it or read it more than once.
But one thing that I like to say is that young people should be able to pick which books they want to read and I think there’s a common misconception that kids need to read certain kinds of books. You know some books are the right books and some books are the wrong books.
And at the end of the day if they’re able to select what they want to read, whether it’s comic books or graphic novels or Captain Underpants, or whatever it is, they should be able to explore what they’re interested in, rather than us pushing our classics or whatever it may be on them, because that’s how you get people excited about reading by not making it an assignment.
Winning the Newbery
Winning the Newbery changed my life over the course of a few seconds. As soon as they made the announcement at the Youth Media Awards Conference, my email, my phone, my text, my social media exploded.
I was working full time at the time as a copy editor and within a few weeks I was able to leave my job and now I am a full time author. And I also teach at Rosemont College. I teach children’s literature. I'm a graduate MFA in publishing programs.
And it has allowed me to really travel and visit book festivals, talk to kids. You know, Hello Universe and You Go First, which was released maybe like a month and a half after the Newbery announcement, both on The New York Times Best Seller Lists.
So it was absolutely life changing. It still doesn’t get rid of the imposter syndrome. A lot of people say oh, you won the Newbery, now you feel validated. But I don't think anything ever really gets rid of that. But it has been life changing in a lot of incredible ways.
The little quiet writer girl inside me read books and daydreamed about being a writer is very impressed. She’s still in there. She’s still in there. And she’s still quiet and she’s still living in her head. But she’s not quite as alone as she used to be.
Erin Entrada Kelly reads an excerpt from Hello, Universe
I'm reading from Chapter 34, Hello, Universe, this is toward the end of the book. And Chet, the bully, has just been bitten by a snake.
I must admit it was a little disappointing to find out that the snake wasn’t poisonous. Not that I’d want Chet’s throat to swell up or anything, I would never wish something like that on anyone, but an arm infected with poison and a scary trip to the emergency room would have been nice.
But then Chet would have a big dramatic story to tell, so maybe it was for the best. I could picture it now. I went to the emergency room and almost died and it was a close call for a while there, the doctor said I was lucky that I killed that cougar when I did. Good thing I had enough strength to demolish it and throw it down that well.
Then again he’d probably tell that story anyway. After Chet walks off, I pick up the pillowcase like it’s a dirty sock. I went crazy about the idea of holding something that Chet … After Chet walks off, I pick up the pillow case like it’s a dirty sock. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of holding something that touched Chet’s sweat, but I’d already littered the woods with my mother’s old bowls. The least I could do was throw the atrocious object away.
I didn’t want some squirrel family to find it or Sacred. The thought of Sacred cuddling up with something and Chet’s pillow case just didn’t sit well with me. When I glanced back at Gen and Kaori, they seemed confused, like they didn’t know who I am all of a sudden.
We should go into business together Kaori says. What, I ask? I couldn’t have heard that right. We should go into business together Kaori says again. I know about the spiritual world and you know about the natural world. It’s the perfect partnership. That’s probably why fate brought us together as friends. Friends. Something about the way she says it makes me feel like I found something. I know it sounds corny but in that moment with that one word I already feel like a different person. Is that possible?
Or it could have just been a coincidence I say. There are no coincidences Gen and Kaori say at the same time. For some reason that makes us all laugh, I don’t care that I'm holding Chet’s disgusting pillow case anymore. Once we stop laughing Kaori’s face turns serious. But first she begins you have to tell us the truth about something.
She and Gen glance at each other. Gen is still holding the bag so I reach for it. Is your name really Rene? I stand up straight, as straight as I can and put my bag on my shoulder, no, I reply my name is Valencia, Valencia Summerset, just like a battle cry.