This February author Erin Entrada Kelly received the Newbery Award for her novel Hello, Universe, a story of an unlikely friendship formed by a trio of sixth graders in a single dramatic day. Though she told PW she “still hasn’t wrapped her head around [winning the Newbery] and maybe never will,” she knows the honor will bring more readers to her new novel, You Go First. Like Hello, Universe and her previous novels Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls, You Go First tackles issues of social isolation and bullying. In the book, two friends who live across the country—Charlotte and Ben—play an online game of Scrabble, and their connection provides a lifeline as each faces tremendous challenges. Kelly wants readers to know that no one struggles alone; even if separated by 1,000 miles, there is always someone who understands.
What inspired you to write about an online friendship?
Funnily enough, it did not start as an online friendship. When I write I begin with the image of a character, and I build the story and the plot around that character. I started with Charlotte and I thought she was going to be the youngest National Scrabble Champion. And the more I researched that journey and I went to homeschool Scrabble championships, Scrabble clubs, Scrabble competitions, and met Scrabble champions—the less it felt like something Charlotte would be a part of. It didn’t fit her dynamic. So as I explored her journey it evolved into an online friendship with Ben. And they were [located] in these two worlds that are meaningful to me—Louisiana and Philadelphia—and I was bridging those two worlds. One of my concerns was that I didn’t want to encourage online friendships or send kids online. It was very important to me that Charlotte and Ben meet in a school-sanctioned online message board and then their friendship gradually evolves onto the app.
One of the things that connects Charlotte and Ben is their shared love of words. How did that help you develop these characters?
Their love of words was integral to the whole story, and [also] the use of words that they play [in Scrabble that] connect to their lives, though I tried for that to be subtle and not obvious because I didn’t want to insert my authorial voice. But both their love of words and their love of knowledge bind the two of them together.
Both Charlotte and Ben face challenges that they choose not to share with the other: Charlotte’s father had a heart attack and is in the hospital, and Ben’s parents are divorcing. Why did you choose to have them keep these secrets and how did you decide when to reveal them?
It just didn’t feel realistic to share their secrets right away. Charlotte in particular is very private, and it didn’t make sense [for her] to share too quickly. And it all came together very organically as their friendship developed and they eventually reveal their secrets. In some ways it shows how you can be whoever you want online.
In your novel, Charlotte faces a betrayal by her best friend Bridget and Ben deals with overt bullying. And each struggles with the humiliations of middle school, such as where to sit at lunch. What did you hope to convey and explore about evolving friendships and bullying?
Bullying is a common thread in my books. I was bullied when I was young and you never forget. Even if you’re only teased for one day when you’re young it has a tremendous impact. Bullying comes in many different forms and social isolation can come in many different flavors. I want young readers to know they’re not alone in the world. Even just as they’re reading I want them to feel that connection. And even for kids who seem like they have it all together, they can feel bullying and isolation, too. I want to celebrate kids who are undercover, those who fly under the radar, and those who are missed, and show them that they are not missed, and that they are not alone.
Charlotte and Ben live in very different places. Ben lives in Louisiana where you were raised, and Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, where you live now. How did a sense of place shape their characters as you constructed the novel?
I wanted to show that although these places are different they are really the same. Certainly, Charlotte’s location outside Philadelphia is much more affluent, well-educated, and near a big city, whereas Ben is in a small town. But even though these two places are different they have a lot in common. I want to celebrate the things that we share rather than what separates us.
Hello, Universe is tautly plotted, taking place in one day. And You Go First occurs in a single week. How do you think about time as you write? Why did you want to condense You Go First into one week?
In many ways it happened by accident. However, when I was young I liked it when books were tautly plotted like that. Hello, Universe takes place in a single day and I got so much positive feedback on that one detail, so I started to think about this one-week timeframe. I also liked the idea of how much our lives can change in such a short period of time in both big and subtle ways.
What do you hope readers will take away from You Go First?
I want them to know that they are not alone. Someone is with them even if they don’t realize it. We never struggle alone. That was my thesis for the novel.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer?
I feel like with each book I learn more about my crutches as a writer and also my strengths. Each book presents an opportunity to take more chances. As you prove yourself as a writer, you can allow yourself more leeway into ever more evolved creative expression.
My incredible partnership with my editor, Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow, is integral to how I write. She pushes and encourages me and while she never tells me what to write she always tells me when I can do better. I know she has helped me become a more sophisticated writer and made my books more well-crafted.
What is your writing process?
I am extremely organized. I write longhand first and each book gets its own notebook. I write a summary of the book and a query letter as if to an agent, even though I already have a great agent (Sara Crowe]. I think that exercise forces you to understand the book even before you start writing. Then I write a detailed synopsis and a summary of each chapter. After that I do a lot of research. When I begin to write I don’t get too shackled to the chapter summaries because characters take you in all sorts of directions, but as each chapter changes I go back again and revise the summary.
I recently started writing full-time after working as a copy editor in a corporate communications firm. I am working in a co-working space now. I like to be around people and get a lot of energy from the creative environment.
What are you working on now?
I am currently in revisions of my first fantasy based on Filipino folklore. It’s due to come out in the summer of 2019. After the election, I, like so many people, had things I wanted to say and fantasy allows you to say what you want without real world expectations and constraints. Filipino folklore is so rich and offers incredible fantasy elements.
You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly. Greenwillow, $16.99 Apr. 10 ISBN 978-0-06-241418-2