Meet the Fil-Am Newbery Medal winner who champions local folklore

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Erin Entrada Kelly’s “Hello, Universe” won this year’s Newbery Medal, an award which recognizes achievement in American literature for children. The book, illustrated by Filipina Isabel Roxas, is an adventure of sorts featuring Filipino folklore, kids with psychic abilities, and a guinea pig named Gulliver. Photo from GREENWILLOW BOOKS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Like most of our lolas Virgilio Salinas’ lola had many stories to tell. Hers though are often grisly. There’s one about Stone Boy, who begged a rock to eat him; the boy king Federico the Sorrowful whose tears flooded his kingdom; a boy named Amado who was eaten by a red tree; the girl Malaya who dared to feed her village with the Crocodile’s bounty; and Pah, a monster bird.

Virgil, as he is more commonly known, is the unassuming ‘bayani’ of Erin Entrada Kelly’s book, “Hello, Universe.” He knows his weakness, that’s why he steers clear of the street where his bully lives, a self-proclaimed ‘Grand Failure,’ and lives by the lessons imparted by his grandmother’s macabre tales. Though this Turtle (his parent’s nickname for him) is coming out of his shell and has taken a liking to his classmate. But things, like in his lola’s story, take a shocking turn on his way to a session to his [child] psychic, Kaori Tanaka. What happens next is, at turns, funny, marvelous, and uplifting.

“Hello, Universe” is Kelly’s third book and had earned her the 2018 Newbery Medal, the prestigious award that recognizes achievement in American literature for children. Previous winners include Neil Gaiman for “The Graveyard Book,” Lois Lowry for “The Giver,” and Madeleine L'Engle for “A Wrinkle in Time.”

When the Newbery committee called her to tell her she had won, they had a difficult time finding her because they had her old number. Her editor gave them her new mobile number, and Kelly was on the road when she received the call.

“I think my exact words were, ‘What? Wait, what? You’re going to have to repeat yourselves’,” she told Publishers Weekly in an interview. “They repeated themselves and I think I said it again, ‘What?’ Those were pretty much the only words that came out of my mouth.”

Author Photo - Erin Entrada Kelly.JPG "The country’s many dialects further illustrate the Philippines’ rich, diverse, and complex background, which is something to be cherished and celebrated," says Erin Entrada Kelly, whose characters speak Cebuano rather than Tagalog. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

The Newbery citation for “Hello, Universe” cites Kelly’s ability to create a journey for her unseemingly ragtag bunch of characters: “Even while following signs and portents, the characters are the definition of creative agency. Masterfully told through shifting points of view, this modern quest tale shimmers with humor and authentic emotion.”

Her two previous books, “The Land of Forgotten Girls,” and “Blackbird Fly,” have had their own share of awards. This year, she’s releasing another middle-grade novel, “You Go First.” Her books are populated with characters with distinct personalities, and had to face difficulties that make them prove their worth.

“My novels always start with the characters first,” she says in an email interview. “The story builds around them. Characters are the heart of any good story. Without them, a story does not exist.”

Reviews have also celebrated the book for addressing the lack of diversity in children's literature.

Kelly now lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She proudly acknowledges the influence of her mother, who lives in Cebu, in her novels, where her characters speak Cebuano rather than Tagalog.

In this interview with CNN Philippines Life, Kelly talks about writing for Filipino-American children, her lola’s stories, and working with a Filipino illustrator for the book. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

From the bio in the book’s dust jacket, you proclaim that your Filipino roots have a major part in your writing. How do you go about this? Do you want to tell stories of Filipinos that haven’t been told before? Or do you study how Filipinos have been portrayed in general literature?

I draw from personal experience, a desire to introduce Filipino culture to wider audiences, and a belief that more Filipino-American children — and those from other immigrant cultures — need to see themselves in books. When I grew up, I was the only Filipino in my neighborhood. I was the only person I knew with an immigrant parent. I didn’t have the ethnic pride that I have now. If I had read books with immigrant characters, I may have felt less alone.

You also said that the characters speak Cebuano rather than Tagalog, which is great because it lets non-Filipino readers know that there is more to Philippine languages than Tagalog. What are the ways in which the Cebuano language has played a part in your narratives?

My mother is Cebuano, and she is one of my primary resources. I don’t speak the language, unfortunately, so it requires lots of research. People have tried to translate some of the words using Tagalog, and they often come away confused. I thought it was important to note that the characters aren’t speaking Tagalog, which is the only language that most people are familiar with outside of the Philippines. The country’s many dialects further illustrate the Philippines’ rich, diverse, and complex background, which is something to be cherished and celebrated.

“Gulliver’s Travels” plays a part in the book. In a way, it bridges classic stories to the narratives of now. What was your intention with this reference?

I’ve always loved “Gulliver’s Travels,” and “Gulliver” seemed like a cute name for a guinea pig. I also thought it would be something unique that Virgil and Valencia could have in common.

Screen Shot 2018-04-13 at 6.32.24 PM.png “My novels always start with the characters first,” says Erin Entrada Kelly. “The story builds around them. Characters are the heart of any good story. Without them, a story does not exist.” Photo from ERIN ENTRADA KELLY/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

The illustrations of Isabel Roxas add more delight to the characters of the book. How did you guys collaborate on this?

Isabel is so incredibly talented! We collaborated mostly through my editor, Virginia Duncan, who connected me with her. I feel so fortunate to have a strong partnership with such a skilled artist, especially since she is Filipina.

Virgil’s lola becomes a major character in some way — or a guiding voice in the novel. She also sounds like Lola Basyang, what with all the lessons and stories that she tells Virgil. Can you tell us more about the making of her character?

My grandparents lived with us for a while when I was young. It’s such a common practice for Filipino families — and immigrant families in general — so I wanted to reflect that unique dynamic. Unfortunately, my lola didn’t speak much English, so we didn’t have the same relationship as Virgil and his lola. Nonetheless, her presence was both fascinating and mysterious to me. I knew I wanted a wise and loving character for Virgil to connect with — someone who was a combination of my mother and all the women in her family that she’s told me about over the years.

The judges cited your use of Filipino folklore in the book. What are some of the Filipino folklore stories that have stuck with you through the years? And what are the ones we should look out for in your future books?

The thing I love most about Filipino folklore is its darkness and humor, which is something I also wanted to reflect through Lola. There are so many layers in Filipino stories. I’m working on my first fantasy now, and much of it is inspired by Filipino folklore. It’s tentatively scheduled for summer 2019. Definitely something to watch for.

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"Hello, Universe" is available at National Book Store and Powerbooks branches.