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Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly Talks About Worry and the Writing Process with Lower Schoolers

Durham Academy Lower School students are enthusiastic readers — they have already checked out close to 17,000 library books this school year, on pace to exceed the 20,000 to 22,000 library books they borrow over the nine months of most school years by far — and the excitement was palpable as they welcomed Erin Entrada Kelly, one of their favorite authors, to campus on Dec. 2.

The annual guest author visit, organized by Lower School librarian Michelle Rosen, is a much-anticipated event, and this year more than ever after COVID-19 protocols dictated a virtual author visit during the 2020–2021 school year. Students from first through fourth grade read Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, the first book in a new series written and illustrated by Kelly, in preparation for her visit and drew posters based on the book to welcome her to the Lower School. 

A New York Times bestselling author, Kelly was the 2018 recipient of the Newbery Medal, which is awarded annually to recognize the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. In her visit to Durham Academy, she talked with students at four different assemblies to allow distance between students in Brumley Performing Arts Building and to tailor her message to students in each grade level. 

When Kelly talked with third-graders, she projected three photos of herself onto the large screen in the Brumley assembly space. One photo was taken when she was around age 5 and her family visited the Gulf of Mexico. It showed Kelly’s older sister happily splashing in the surf while Kelly clung to her father’s hand. “I was terrified,” she explained, “and my sister wasn’t afraid of anything.” 

Another photo showed her sister perched in a tree and Kelly down below on the grass. “I never climbed a tree when I was a kid,” she said. “I didn’t climb a tree until this year, when I was an adult, because I was afraid I would fall. I was terrified. Everyone else was OK with it and I was embarrassed because I was scared and didn’t want to be. That’s not a good feeling, and I wanted to be brave like my sister.” 

And there was a photo of Kelly on her bicycle, looking forlorn and holding an Easter egg basket. “Every year my elementary school had an Easter egg hunt, and every year I was the only student who never found any eggs,” Kelly explained. “I'm going to school on my bike and I have my basket, and I'm kind of worried because I know I probably won't find any Easter eggs. That always made me feel bad about myself, because all the other kids seemed to know exactly where to go. They all ran into the yard at the school, they all found eggs and I never found any. It bothered me because I was the only one holding an empty Easter basket.”


Kelly said experiences like those are what inspired her to write Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey. She told the third-graders that the character “Marisol basically is me when I was an 8-year-old,” and like Marisol, Kelly is a Filipina-American.

“Even though I'm sure that many of you are not afraid to climb trees, we all know what it's like to be afraid of something. It doesn't feel good because people make us feel bad about it and sometimes we make ourselves feel bad about it because we want to be brave or we want to be better.”

While acknowledging their fears, Kelly encouraged students to recognize the things they do well and that they like about themselves. Two things that Kelly celebrates about herself are writing — she showed a photo of the very first book she wrote as a child, The Two Orpans [sic] — and drawing. The third-graders had been asked to bring paper and pencils to the assembly, and Kelly invited them to draw with her. “The cool thing is everyone's will be different,” she said, “because it depends on what you want to do.”

The students also gave suggestions as Kelly drew an animal that they named Charlie Farley the Flanda. “This is how stories get made … because then you can think about in a world where a panda/lion/frog/vampire exists, what would that world look like and what kind of powers would our vampire/lion/panda/frog have? … That’s what imagination is all about,” she said.

Kelly told the third-graders that she always wanted to be a writer —  as early as The Two Orpans, which she asked her father to put on cardboard because she wanted it to be a hardback book. “I’ve never stopped writing, I’m always writing.” She recently finished the second book in the Marisol Rainey series, which will be published in late summer 2022.

“It took me several months [to write the first Marisol Rainey book], and then it took me a long time to do the illustrations as well. So altogether, maybe about a year to do the back and forth, the revisions, the writing and the art. It took a long time. The second book was a little easier just because I had a little more practice.”

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey is the first book that Kelly has written for elementary readers, and Lower School students have enthusiastically embraced the Marisol character. Every student had a hand in making a life-size papier-mâché Marisol that Kelly carefully placed on the library “tree” during her visit. They also created a “Worry Tree” on a library bulletin board, sharing their worries and fears on green construction paper leaves. 

View more photos from Kelly’s visit to the Lower School on Flickr.