Have you ever felt lonely or ignored at school?
That’s how author Erin Entrada Kelly felt growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She was bullied because of her quiet personality and race.
“Books helped,” she said. “I could connect with the characters. I also became friends with another girl who read a lot.”
In “Hello, Universe,” a boy named Virgil is tormented by a neighbor, Chet. Virgil tries to fight back when Chet steals his backpack with pet guinea pig Gulliver inside, but that only puts him and his pet in greater danger. In February, the book won a big award in children’s literature: the Newbery Medal.
Bullying can take different forms. In “You Go First,” Charlotte feels confused and shamed by Bridget, her best friend of many years. Bridget now excludes Charlotte and gossips about her. Why doesn’t Bridget want to be friends anymore, Charlotte wonders. Charlotte doesn’t know what she did wrong.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s online Scrabble partner, Ben, is mocked at his school. He tries to fit in, but he doesn’t know how. No one wants to sit with him at lunch. Mean boys smear ketchup on his shirt and beat him up. When he decides to run for student government, they rip his posters.
Whenever she visits schools, Kelly meets kids who have suffered similar insults. They come up to her to talk. They slip her notes.
“They want to share what happened to them,” Kelly said by phone recently from Santa Monica, California, during a tour to promote her books. These students tell her that her books make them feel less alone. Kelly’s writing gives them hope that things will change.
“I worried about everything, just like that walrus,” she said with a laugh. “I was scared to climb trees. I had trouble sleeping at night.”
Of all her characters, Kelly feels closest to Virgil. They share a love for guinea pigs. Virgil picks dandelions as treats for Gulliver, just as Kelly did for her pet, Clover.
As Kelly was when she was growing up, Virgil is gentle and sensitive. He is also Filipino American.
Kelly’s mother is from the Philippines, an Asian country of more than 7,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, and her father is a white American. Kelly and her older sister were often the only Asian kids at their school. She was teased because of her Asian features.
“That hurt,” Kelly said.
When she talks to groups of kids, Kelly asks them to think about what they are putting out in the universe, every day, through what they say and do and create.
“One act of kindness can change someone’s life,” Kelly said. “So can one act of cruelty.”
After winning the Newbery, the past three months have been “incredible and very busy,” Kelly said.
When she finishes this book tour, she will return to her home outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and complete a novel to be published next year.
“I’m excited,” Kelly said. “This is my first fantasy, and it is based on Filipino folklore.”
She will then eagerly dive into her next project. The idea is already starting to take shape, she said. She is jotting down notes in a journal devoted to the new novel.
Unlike many writers, Kelly doesn’t stick to a routine. She writes when she wants to.
“Fortunately, I love to write, so that’s what I often want to be doing,” she said.