A novel about a diverse group of middle-school students, including a Filipino-American boy, brought together by a neighborhood bully’s cruel act, won for Filipino-American author Erin Entrada Kelly the 2018 Newbery Medal for outstanding contribution to US children’s literature.
On its website, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the division of the American Library Association that hands out the annual prize, announced that Kelly’s Hello, Universe, clinched the medal, named after 18th-century British bookseller John Newbery.
“Filipino folklore and real life converge at the bottom of a well. Even while following signs and portents, the characters are the definition of creative agency,” ALSC said of the book, which was published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
“Masterfully told through shifting points of view, this modern quest tale shimmers with humor and authentic emotion,” it added.
“This is the proudest moment of my life,” Kelly wrote on her Facebook page after the ALSC’s announcement, which, a New York Times report said, was made at the association’s midwinter conference in Denver, Colorado, on Monday.
“I am in shock. I am in awe. I am in shock and awe,” she added.
Hello, Universe—which follows shy Filipino-American Virgil, who has a guinea pig named Gulliver as a pet; his Japanese-American friend Kaori and her sister Gen; his deaf classmate Valencia; and bully Chet—has earned accolades since its publication last March.
In her review for the Washington Post, Mary Quattlebaum called the novel “intriguingly plotted” and lauded Kelly for building “suspense” and fostering “empathy for her characters.”
The Publishers Weekly website, meanwhile, praised “Hello, Universe,” as “charming” and “infused with humor and hope.”
“[T]his book deftly conveys messages of resilience and self-acceptance through simple acts of everyday courage,” Publishers Weekly said.
“Readers will be left inspired to tackle life’s fears head-on,” it added.
“Readers across the board will flock to this book that has something for nearly everyone—humor, bullying, self-acceptance, cross-generational relationships and a smartly fateful ending,” a School Library Journal website review said.
Previous winners of the Newbery include A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle in 1963, Sounder by William Armstrong in 1970 and Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan in 1986, all of which have been adapted for film or television.
Born in 1977, Kelly was raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She identifies herself as a mestiza and Filipino-American, as her mother hails from Sogod town, Southern Leyte province and who now lives in Cebu province.
On her website, Kelly said this is why many of her Filipino characters speak in Cebuano, rather than Tagalog.
She has a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and liberal arts from McNeese State University and a master in fine arts degree in creative writing from Rosemont College.
Kelly is also a short-story writer. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award in 2009 and the Pushcart Prize in 2015.
Besides Hello, Universe, Kelly also wrote Blackbird Fly (2015), The Land of Forgotten Girls (2016) and You Go First (2018).
The author currently lives in the Philadelphia area.