Author Chat with Erin Entrada Kelly

Author Chat with Erin Entrada Kelly

Interview cotributed by Karen Yingling and Erin Entrada Kelly


Karen Yingling: Who were you as a middle grade reader? What books did you like to read, and/or what activities did you like to do?

Erin Entrada Kelly: I always enjoyed activities that let me spend time in my head. For example: I had a big box of Hot Wheels, but I never had them race or crash into each other. Instead, I played a game called Parking Lot. The coffee table was the parking lot to a big shopping center, and I had the cars drive in and park. I invented stories for the imaginary people inside each car. It wasn’t the most dramatic way to play with Hot Wheels, but I loved that big cardboard box.

Reading and writing (whether in my head or on paper) have always been my favorite activities. As a young reader, my favorite author was Judy Blume. I loved Just as Long as We’re Together.

KY: There are very few middle grade books that include Filipino culture, so getting a glimpse into Apple and Sol’s lives was very interesting. Tell us a little more about how being a Filipina American shaped your tween years—especially anything that involves food or ghosts, two things that appear in your books and which middle grade readers love!

EK: I felt like an outsider for most of my childhood because I was raised in an area where they were few Asians. I was the only Filipino in my school through college. People constantly asked me: “What are you? Where are you from?” I’d say, “I’m from here.” They’d say, “No, where are you really from?” I was already a quiet and self­conscious kid, so this didn’t help.

As for food, I was born and raised in the States in an area with no Filipinos, so my exposure to Filipino cuisine was limited. The Filipino noodle dish pancit appears in both of my books, because that’s one thing my mother cooked regularly. I love it! Lumpia is also delicious.

As for ghosts, I’ve always loved a good ghost story. I’m not sure how or why that started. I was the kid at the sleepover who wanted to tell ghost stories and scare everyone. And I’d make my friends watch scary movies. The idea of the unseen and the “unknown beyond” is fascinating to me.

KY: Teachers and librarians are always looking for books with diverse characters. Are there other titles that include Filipino culture that you’ve read? Are there titles published in the Philippines that you wish would be published in the US?

EK: Candy Gourlay is one of my favorite Filipino authors. She wrote Tall Story and Shine, both middle­grade titles. She lives in the UK. I’m also a longtime fan of Dean Alfar, who is based in Manila and specializes in speculative fiction. Randy Ribay is a Filipino­American YA author whose debut, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, was released last year and features a diverse cast.

KY: Diverse books address the pervasive middle grade feeling of being “other”. How did you deal with that feeling when you were in middle school? What helped you the most?

EK: My answer is the same for both: reading and writing.

KY: Middle grade stories that includes students who have particular interests are a good way for readers to cultivate their own interests. Your characters not only enjoy music and writing, but are saved by these activities. How big a part of your identity were these activities?

EK: Writing was my life. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. When I felt down, which was often, I escaped into books—reading and writing them.

KY: Your earliest story was about orphans, and there’s a lot of discussion in middle grade literature about the absence of parents. Apple has lost her father, and Sol has lost her mother as well as her father, to a large extent. Why do you think this is such a common occurrence in middle grade literature?

EK: When we read stories, we want to experience a total journey with our characters. We want them to find their way up from difficult places. Having absent parents—whether literally or figuratively—is a tough mountain to climb. When readers see characters reach their summit, they feel empowered to strive for theirs. Whatever that may be.

KY: In Blackbird Fly, there is a supportive teacher, and in The Land of the Forgotten Girls, the sisters are able to turn to a helpful neighbor. Do you think that middle grade readers crave support of adults outside their families?

EK: It depends on the dynamics of their family. For me, the greater message is that love and support can come from unexpected places. You just have to keep your eyes and hearts open. That’s true for everyone, no matter how old you are.

KY: You’ve been much lauded for your adult writing, especially your short stories. Why did you feel drawn to middle grade writing?

EK: As my short stories were getting published, I noticed that they shared an interesting commonality—most of them had main characters who were between the ages of 8 and 12. I didn’t realize I kept going back to that well. But when I did, it was an “aha!” moment. I was in my 20s and had a stack of unfinished novels that kept losing steam. At that moment, I realized I’d been speaking to the wrong audience.

KY: How do you keep connected with middle grade readers? Do you have a journal from your tween years, or do you have young readers with whom you discuss ideas?

EK: I read what they’re reading. I visit schools. I devour every letter or email I get from young readers. I talk to librarians. And I have a small group of loyal fans whose opinion I appreciate.

I have a journal from eighth grade. To be honest, it’s difficult to read, even all these years later. That was a tough year.

KY: When I was in middle school, the Beatles were considered “old”, but my students still love this particular group. Why do you think the Beatles were so timeless?

EK: Great question! In my opinion, it’s because their catalog is so varied. Just about everyone can name at least one Beatles song they like, even if they aren’t a fan of the group. 



Books by Erin Entrada Kelly!


March 1, 2016

Two sisters from the Philippines, abandoned by their father and living with their stepmother in Louisiana, fight to make their lives better in this remarkable story for readers of Cynthia Kadohata and Rita Williams-Garcia, and for anyone searching for the true meaning of family.


March 24, 2015

Future rock star or friendless misfit? That’s no choice at all. In this acclaimed novel, twelve-year-old Apple grapples with being different; with friends and backstabbers; and with following her dreams. Publishers Weekly called Blackbird Fly “a true triumph,” and the Los Angeles Times Book Reviewsaid, “Apple soars like the eponymous blackbird of her favorite Beatles song.”

Apple has always felt a little different from her classmates. She and her mother moved to Louisiana from the Philippines when she was little, and her mother still cooks Filipino foods and chastises Apple for becoming “too American.” When Apple’s friends turn on her and everything about her life starts to seem weird and embarrassing, Apple turns to music. If she can just save enough to buy a guitar and learn to play, maybe she can change herself. It might be the music that saves her . . . or it might be her two new friends, who show her how special she really is. Erin Entrada Kelly deftly brings Apple’s conflicted emotions to the page in her debut novel about family, friendship, popularity, and going your own way. “A must-read for those kids cringing at their own identities.”—Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.


Erin Entrada Kelly is the author of The Land of Forgotten Girls (HarperCollins), which was recently named one of the Best Multicultural Books of 2016 by Booklist, and Blackbird Fly, which earned an Asian/Pacific American Honor Award for Literature, a Golden Kite Honor, and was included on several best­of lists for 2015, including Kirkus, School Library Journal, and the Center for the Study of Multicultural Literature. Blackbird Fly is currently long­listed for the SIBA Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize. She released a short story collection, Her Name was Fidela, in 2014. 


Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian who has been blogging about middle grade books since 2006. Her blog concentrates on books for boys, but also highlights books with diversity every Wednesday.

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