Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

And now, something for the kids

On occasion, I like to read good children’s or YA books, albeit usually when written by authors whose other work I already like. For example, books by Ursula Le Guin (I dedicated another post to her YA material) or Nnedi Okorafor (I strongly recommend any of her books, but especially, and apropos to the topic at hand, some of her excellent YA offerings like The Shadow Speaker or Akata Witch, its sequel, Akata Warrior or the very recent Ikenga). However, recently I read two children’s books by an author who, as far I as can tell, only writes children’s books. However, the author in question, Erin Entrada Kelly, was a guest on a podcast I listened to a few months ago (which was about the original Star Trek, by the way). When the host mentioned that she was a writer of children’s books, I thought I’d check out her stuff. And luckily, the English-language section of my favorite local library has two of her books.

I have to say, I was really impressed with both, and that’s why I thought I’d write a post about them. Here’s a rundown of each:

The Land of Forgotten Girls tells the story of Soledad Madrid (called Sol) and her younger sister Ming (short for Dominga), two Filipina girls living in a town in Louisiana with their stepmother (they consider her evil, and as the character is portrayed, she is indeed rather unsavory). They’re stuck with her because their father, for reasons not quite clear to them (nor to readers), moved back to the Philippines and apparently never tries to contact them. Their mother died of cancer about 6 years before, only a year after their middle sister accidentally drowned in river. Most of the story involves Sol trying to deal with these many emotional burdens and make the best of things, and also shielding her little sister from her stepmother but also just the general harshness of their life. Mainly she does this by telling Ming all kinds of tall tales, something their mother did as well – only it sort of backfires when Ming takes one of those stories, about a wonderful non-existent aunt, seriously.

That’s just the barest summary of the main story elements, which makes it sound kind of bleak. It’s anything but, though. There is in fact a lot of humor and many touching moments. Entrada Kelly does a really good job of telling the story from the vantage point of the children who are their main characters – so their dealings with adults are always viewed through that lens all of us had as children, and many things in their lives that they don’t quite understand remain unexplained.

This one even won the Newberry Medal!

Hello, Universe revolves around five kids, all except one just out of fifth grade: Virgil, a rather quiet, shy, awkward boy from an otherwise exuberant and outgoing Filipino family (his grandmother is the only who understands him); Valencia, a mostly confident and quite intelligent girl, but who’s a bit of an outsider at school because she’s also hearing-impaired (and Virgil secretly has a crush on her); Chet, the neighorhood and school bully; Kaori, a very precocious, and slightly pretentious, girl who thinks of herself as a psychic and even advertises her services to other kids – which is how she knows Virgil, her only ‘client’ (she doesn’t go to the same school as the other three); and Kaori’s kid sister, Gen, who’s basically her assistant. Most of the book takes place in a single afternoon on a day not long after summer vacation begins. A series of events, some borderline traumatic, brings them all together in an odd way that almost seems to go beyond mere coincidence. Kaori, in fact, becomes convinced it’s all part of a cosmic plan…

Both of these books have a lot of heart. I know it’s almost a cliché to say this to say this, but they’re very much children’s books that can still be appreciated by adults. I’ll definitely be looking out for other books by Entrada Kelly.

*  Note: if you click any Amazon link to a book in the post, and end up buying anything, a (very) little something comes back to us here at the Atomic Junk Shop. Thank you.


  1. JHL

    The current popularity of YA books across age groups fascinates me. Probably about the time I hit junior high I developed a massive aversion to books marketed as intended for my age range. I was a voracious reader, but I would always head directly to a bookstore’s science fiction and fantasy section or a library’s adult fiction. I suspect this is because most YA marked stuff back then seemed painfully heavy handed in how they conveyed their messages. Essentially after school specials in book form.

    Amusingly I developed a great appreciation for children’s literature during high school after I got a job as a library page. I tended to get assigned to restocking the children’s section and would read anything that I ran across that looked interesting. I ended up reading quite a few Daniel Pinkwater books. I really should check and see if any of those are still in print.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yeah, I had a very similar path, in that I probably read my last book aimed specifically at kids when I was in about the fifth grade (the sole exception being Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy, which I think is definitely YA). At that point, my go-to leisure reading, besides comics, was SF, fantasy, sword & sorcery…

      I became more receptive to good children’s and YA literature fairly recently, a little over a decade ago, when I discovered Nnedi Okorafor’s YA books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.