The library wasn’t where a ninth-grade Erin Entrada Kelly would have chosen to spend her lunchtime.
“I had one best friend and she had a different lunch, so I would go to the library. I would have much rather had friends and gone outside,” Kelly said.
She felt like an outsider while growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Kelly is Filipina American, and her town had almost no immigrant population, she said. She was bullied beginning in elementary school. But Kelly remembers ninth grade as especially bad — until someone caught on to her library escapes.
“A girl named Ellen noticed and asked me why,” Kelly said. “She said, ‘You could come sit with me,’ and the next day that’s what I did.”
What she calls a small gesture made a huge impact on Kelly, now a children’s author. Her novels, notably Newbery Medal-winning “Hello, Universe” and “You Go First,” often deal with bullying. They also deal with otherness, something Kelly didn’t see in the books of her childhood.
“I didn’t crave more diversity in books because it didn’t occur to me that it was an option,” she said.
Most of the characters Kelly read about in the 1980s and ’90s were white. They didn’t have money problems. They had two-parent families. She’s thankful that the publishing world has realized that children’s books should reflect many more ethnicities and situations.
“There are different families depicted — single-parents families, families with no money, same-sex families,” she said. “We live in a society that has so many people. Everyone deserves to see themselves in books, in movies on TV.”
Kelly’s new book, “Lalani of the Distant Sea,” is a fantasy, a departure from her realistic fiction.
“When you’re building your own world, there are so many opportunities to fail,” she said with a laugh. “You have to be able to anticipate readers’ questions.”
Kelly invented the island of Sanlagita, but the issues its inhabitants face — toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes, among them — are familiar to many kids.
And kids who shy from fantasy because they find the characters unrelatable have a reason to pick up this novel.
“I created a heroine in Lalani, who isn’t particularly gifted in any way,” Kelly said. “What’s extraordinary about her is her power to be compassionate. . . . That’s not something we typically celebrate in our society.”
KidsPost asked Kelly to choose five books for holiday giving. (Not all are 2019 titles.) The Washington Post children’s book critics also contributed their favorite five from this year.
Erin Entrada Kelly's selections
By Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Meilo So (Candlewick, ages 9 to 12)
This novel centers on two children — Bronze, a mute peasant boy, and Sunflower, the daughter of an artist — who are growing up in the wetlands of the northern Jiangsu province during China’s Cultural Revolution. It’s not enough to say this is a story of friendship and family, because it’s much more than that. It’s a story of loyalty, sacrifice and community, and what it means when you love the people in your life more than you love yourself.
By Jen Wang (First Second, ages 12 and older)
Prince Sebastian’s family wants to find him a wife, but Sebastian is looking for someone else: a dressmaker. When he finds Frances, their pairing seems to be ideal. She loves making dresses, and Prince Sebastian loves wearing them. But what begins as a perfect partnership soon buckles under the weight of their shared secret. This exuberant graphic novel explores identity, love and art in a wonderful melody of illustration and prose. A modern fairy tale for any age.
By Barbara Dee (Aladdin, ages 9 to 13)
Mila is confused when the boys at her middle school start paying attention to her. One day she’s an ordinary seventh-grade girl playing in the school band; the next day, the boys start giving her unwanted hugs and “accidentally” grazing her body. Her friend Zara says they’re “just flirting.” Zara dismisses Mila’s concerns as immature. But it doesn’t feel like flirting to Mila. It just feels wrong. Barbara Dee brings the #MeToo conversation to a middle-grade audience with nuance and authenticity. An important book.
By Candy Gourlay (David Fickling Books, ages 8 to 12)
A good coming-of-age story transcends worlds and timelines, and such is the case for “Bone Talk.” It’s 1899, and Samkad lives in a mountainous village in the Philippines, where he dreams of becoming a mighty headhunter like his father. He spends much of his time with Luki, a girl with a warrior spirit. Samkad and Luki know little about the outside world — until a boy arrives and tells them about strange invaders called Americans. This novel was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, the Costa Book Award and the Leeds Book Award before its U.S. debut in November. All honors are well deserved.
By Naomi Shihab Nye (Greenwillow Books, ages 14 and older)
Upon first glance, it seems impossible that 40 life-affirming short stories appear in such a slim little book, but that is the magic of Naomi Shihab Nye. This series of semi-connected (very) short stories explore the influence of class, ethnicity, war, peace, life and death on our daily lives, through the eyes of characters who are both three-dimensional and deeply universal.
By Jason Reynolds (Athenaeum, ages 10 to 14)
A lot happens on the walk home from a city middle school. A shy boy prepares to talk to his crush, a fierce girl fights for her skateboard and an anxious kid finds support from a broom dog in 10 short stories that are sometimes funny, often surprising and always real. Shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
By Jerry Craft (HarperCollins, ages 8 to 12)
Jordan Banks, an African American boy, tries to find his place at a new private school where most of the students are wealthy and white. Throughout this dynamic graphic novel, he’s bolstered by an important trait: his love of drawing.
By Stacey Lee (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ages 12 and older)
As the newspaper advice columnist Miss Sweetie, Jo Kuan probes the social ills of post-Reconstruction Atlanta. This vividly rendered historic novel will keep readers riveted as witty, observant Jo deals with the dangers of questioning power.
By Celia Perez (Penguin, ages 8 to 12)
Four very different girls join forces in Miami to protect birds and end up taking on family expectations, cultural norms and a historic feathered hat. Pink plastic flamingoes play a strategic role in this lively, thought-provoking tale of friendship and activism.
By Padma Venkatraman (Paulsen/Penguin, ages 10 and up)
In this gritty, heartfelt novel, 11-year-old Viji and her sister flee their perilous home in India and learn to survive on their own, with the help of a friendly dog and two resourceful street boys.
— Mary Quattlebaum
By Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury, ages 10 to 14)
What a year! Describing 1919’s turmoil — including racial violence, labor disputes, women’s fight for voting rights, anti-immigrant actions, baseball cheats and a horrible accident involving millions of gallons of molasses — Sandler reveals both how far the United States has come in the past century and the roots of many of our current problems. The book won the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
By Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek, ages 10 and older)
In the early 1900s, Harvey Wiley tried to protect his fellow Americans from all sorts of dangerous products, such as rotting meat and fake medicine. Gail Jarrow’s well-researched book — full of misleading ads from the time — shows how Wiley’s scientific approach led to much healthier American lives.
By Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper (Holiday House, ages 7 to 10)
Focusing on two brothers with very different personalities, this book celebrates the extraordinary art they created as well as their brotherly bond. Hadley Hooper’s illustrations depict the men, the places they lived, and their artworks with skill and vibrancy.
By Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Schwartz & Wade, ages 5 to 8)
This picture-book biography of Thurgood Marshall follows him from his Baltimore childhood to the Supreme Court, as a lawyer arguing landmark cases and as the first black Supreme Court justice. Winter’s well-chosen facts and Collier’s radiant watercolor-and-collage pictures go perfectly together.
By Sy Montgomery (HMH, ages 10 and up)
This close-up look at wildlife includes lots of photos and explains how a variety of animals migrate to survive. Montgomery’s focus on the wildebeest, Africa’s super-social bearded antelopes, makes it clear that we need to protect the Serengeti and other threatened habitats.
— Abby McGanney Nolan
By Sydney Smith (Neal Porter/Holiday House, ages 4 to 8)
Where in the city could you go to hide or warm up? The snow is starting to fall, and a child is looking for a lost creature. “I know what it’s like to be small in the city,” the child says before giving some advice. “People don’t see you and loud sounds can scare you.” But there might also be a warm vent with steamy summer air, a kind person with food to offer, a tree to climb and places to stay safe, and someone who is waiting at home.
By Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, Ages 3 to 6)
The King of Kindergarten washes his face, brushes his teeth and eats a tower of pancakes before the big yellow carriage takes him to a grand fortress. He greets the others in his Kindergarten Kingdom with a welcoming smile and a big hello, and gets to hear from the teacher about shapes, the alphabet and the mysteries of numbers. He is charming, and wonderful, and kind, as a king should be!
By Elisha Cooper (Orchard/Scholastic, Ages 4 to 10)
An intrepid mom sets out on a 300-mile journey by canoe, from quiet mountain lakes to the busy headwaters of the Hudson where the city crowds the river close. Come along on this bold voyage where moose and bear and starry skies give way to towns, bridges, storms and big boats, and finally a welcome home.
By Lesléa Newman, illustration by Amy June Bates (Abrams, Ages 4 to 8)
Nine-year-old Gittel wishes she could bring the neighbor’s goat, Frieda, with her to America. All she has when she says goodbye to her mother is her rag doll, her mother’s Shabbos candlesticks and her bundle of clothes. The
address for a cousin in New York is damp and the ink smeared by the time the ship reaches the Statue of Liberty. Will Gittel ever see her mother again?
By Susan Choi, illustrated by John Rocco (G.P. Putnam, Ages 4 to 9)
The late September family camping trip in the mountains is special this year because of a surprise visitor: a tiger that can talk! The tiger wants to stay in a tent and it wants to eat the fish that our first-grade hero catches. The tiger leads the way to a hidden overlook, and it can even steer a canoe with its paws. First grade seems a bit easier after this.
— Kathie Meizner
Correction: The author of “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story” was incorrectly identified as Leslie Newman. She is Lesléa Newman. The story has been updated.