By 8:30 Eastern time Monday morning, Erin Entrada Kelly figured she was facing an ordinary day. “I know from hearing the speeches of past winners that they give you a call pretty early in the morning,” Kelly said. And, when her phone didn’t wake her up in the wee hours, she said to herself, “Well, I guess I didn’t win. That’s OK.” But once she was in her car and driving down the road to work, the awards were still on her mind.
“As I’m driving I thought, ‘I wonder who won? I hope it was this book, or I hope so-and-so won.’ ” About an hour later, Kelly’s road trip took an interesting detour. “I get a text message from my editor [Virginia Duncan] which said, ‘Where are you?’ And I responded, ‘I’m in my car, is there somewhere else I should be?’ And then Duncan replied, “You should be at home with your feet up! Give me your cell phone number.” Duncan told Kelly that a call would be coming soon and she should pick it up. That’s what Kelly did, and the Newbery committee was on the other end of the line. “Apparently they had an old number,” Kelly said, “and they had been trying to reach me.”
Upon hearing the news that her novel, Hello, Universe (Greenwillow), had won the Newbery Medal, Kelly recalled, “I think my exact words were, ‘What? Wait, what? You’re going to have to repeat yourselves.’ They repeated themselves and I think I said it again, ‘What?’ Those were pretty much the only words that came out of my mouth. And then I said ‘I’m on 95,’ as if they cared I’m on 95, ‘and I have to turn around.’”
The whole drive home Kelly’s heart was “just pounding. I was in shock.” She called her partner so the two of them could watch the livestream of the Youth Media Awards press conference together. “When they announced it, I just started bawling,” she said. “I don’t know the last time I cried so hard. I was incoherent, couldn’t believe it. Still can’t believe it. And then I immediately got up and started cleaning the house.”
Housework is Kelly’s way of channeling adrenaline. “I started hanging up clothes and straightening the dining room table, the whole time saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ I’m like a little mouse right now, just picking stuff up: that needs to go here, this needs to go there. And that’s usually what I do before I start writing. I think a lot of writers do. They clean the area because they need to think, they need to focus. I was just jumping out of my skin and didn’t know where to go.”
Following the official announcement, Kelly said her phone “started blowing up.” One of the first calls was her agent, Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties. “I had not told her yet because I had only just found out right before the press conference,” said Kelly. She called me crying and said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?” and I had to tell her, ‘Because I didn’t know!…’ ” Next was a call from her publicist, Gina Rizzo. And shortly thereafter, Kelly tweeted a post-cry photo of herself holding flowers sent by her publisher. As the morning turned to afternoon, Kelly had to turn her phone off. “I never had so many notifications in my life. I’m pacing and cleaning, and I had a hamburger.”
When asked how she would describe Hello, Universe to someone, Kelly mentioned a recent school visit. “I told them that one of the common threads in my books is they’re about kids who have secrets. All of us have something, whether we’re kids or grown-ups, things that we feel ashamed about or we don’t want other people to know about or we’re self-conscious about. One of the ways to celebrate that is to recognize that it can be a strength, but also to show kindness because you never know what other people’s secrets are.”
The four lead characters in Hello, Universe all have issues they are struggling with. Virgil is painfully shy and afraid of the dark and believes he’s too old to have such a fear. Valencia is deaf and often lonely because people are intimidated about how to communicate with her. Frustrated Chet strikes out as a bully, and Kaori is a self-proclaimed psychic tired of being followed around by her younger sister. When Chet pulls a prank that results in Virgil and his beloved pet guinea pig becoming trapped in an abandoned well, the kids’ disparate lives converge as they search for him.
Kelly notes that in her books she relishes championing the underdog. “I love to celebrate kids who are underestimated and to show kids that there are many different ways to be strong and mighty. The idea that this group of misfit, small-and-mighty characters is being honored and finding this bigger stage really means the world to me.”
Another signature feature of Kelly’s work is the exploration of Filipino culture, which she writes from personal experience as a Filipina-American. “When I was a kid there weren’t many books with Asians and there weren’t any that I can remember reading with Filipinos,” she said. “It’s incredible to know that my book provides an opportunity for more people to read about a Filipino family, the words they use, how they interact, all that stuff.”
Hello, Universe is Kelly’s third middle-grade novel and joins her previous books in receiving warm critical praise. But did she ever imagine the Newbery Medal among her accolades? “I entertained the idea in the same way that you’re in the shower and you do a Grammy speech with your shampoo bottle,” she said with a laugh. “But did I ever actually think it would ever happen? No. I’m just so honored and blown away. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl and it’s been my lifelong dream to even just publish a book. Little eight-year-old me is very proud.”
Kelly hasn’t had time to plan a Newbery celebration just yet, “but I know it’s going to involve lots of champagne,” she said with a laugh. “Who knows, maybe I’ll just start drinking when we get off the phone. I think it’s OK. It’s what, two o’clock in the afternoon? I have a right.”
And when the housecleaning frenzy slows down and the Newbery news truly sinks in, Kelly said she’ll hit the ground running, as she always has. “I am always in the middle of something,” she said. “People talk about writer’s block, but I have the opposite problem. I call it writer’s storm. My brain is constantly spurting out ideas, and some of them aren’t good. I’m constantly sending my editor and agent ideas.”
Next up is the novel You Go First (Greenwillow, Apr.), about a week in the life of two middle school kids who become online friends via a Scrabble game. And following that, Kelly notes, “I’m in the middle of edits for my first fantasy, very much inspired by Filipino folklore, which will come out in the summer of 2019 [also from Greenwillow].”
Readers can rest assured other projects will be sprouting soon as well. “I love to write, it’s my life,” Kelly said. “I’ve been trying to hone my illustrating skills as well, so I’ve been doing lots of doodles. I’m slightly obsessed with productivity, I think. At some point I’m just going to collapse. But not yet, though! Not anytime soon!