Once upon a time, I was a little girl.

I knew a few things about life back then. They were:

  • When you’re a girl, there is nothing worse than being ugly. Therefore, it’s a top proirity to be pretty.
  • You should always be yourself, unless yourself doesn’t fit in, in which case you should stuff yourself down and reshape yourself to conform so you won’t be alone.
  • You should be ashamed about what makes you different, because it’s the root cause of all your problems.

I now know that none of these are true. But when I was eight, nine, ten, twelve, or fifteen, they were. And for many children today, they still are.

As a mestiza in a non-diverse southern community, I had the weighty sense that I was not-pretty, and my ethnic background didn’t allow me to conform. So I stuffed it down and was ashamed of it. My eyes, my complexion, my hair color, my nose, my stubby eyelashes — they were all vile to me. I believed, like many girls before me, that being pretty meant blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be like Dionna, a girl who went to my school. Her hair sat in soft blonde ringlets. She always wore fashionable headbands and cute dresses. Her eyes were round and blue. Everyone wanted to be around her. Even her name was beautifully sophisticated. Dionna.

Meanwhile, my eyes slanted just enough to be traitorous. They were dark. And I had no adorable headbands or cute dresses. Also, my hair was coarse.

I used to think: If I have to be Asian, why can’t I at least have Chinese hair?

It’s embarrassing to admit that. But it’s true.


I read a lot. Judy Blume spoke directly to me. Her books were my thoughts come to life. But there were missing pieces. Her characters were mostly white middle-class Yankees. I was a whitish Asian in the working class who was being raised in the deep South, even though neither of my parents were Southerners.

So what was I?


A co-worker recommended a book to me many years ago. It was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s unfortunate that Toni Morrison is the only African American author that many White people can name, but it’s fortunate that I was given the book.

On the surface, I had little in common with Pecola. She was a Black girl growing up in Ohio after the Great Depression. She suffered from horrific abuse. Her family struggled to get by in a society where Whiteness was goodness. My family’s lack of money was an inconvenience. Pecola’s poverty was oppressive. Pecola was told, again and again, that she was ugly. This fueled her one greatest wish: To have blue eyes.

I thought about the times I stared at my own eyes in the mirror and wished they would turn blue. The nights I went to sleep and prayed that I would wake up looking “more American.” How I took it as a compliment when someone said, “Oh, I just thought you were White.”

As readers, we relate to most characters on an empathic level. But I related to Pecola in a more meaningful way. I was a whitish-Asianish girl with food on the table and she was a poor Black girl in the years after the Great Depression, but she managed to reach across the divide of time, fiction, race, age, economics, and social status to say: I know we are very different, but in some ways, we are the same.

Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day. Make sure you celebrate it. Remember why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Books Take Us Somewhere When We Have Nowhere to Go

You don’t have to look far to be troubled. Turn on the television. Scroll through your social media feed. People are angry and frustrated. People are so angry and frustrated that they can’t sympathize with the angry and frustrated people on the opposite side of the fence.

Sadly, I’m becoming one of those people.

So last night I made an executive decision to clock out of the world and read Peter Pan.

Full disclosure: I have never read Peter Pan. I’ve never wanted to read Peter Pan. I didn’t like the Disney version of Peter Pan because I thought he was cocky, arrogant, and annoying. Yes, I know this was purposeful. But I didn’t have to like it.

But now I’m reading the book, and I am hooked. (No pun intended).

I’m not finished yet. But I have to say, clocking out and going to Neverland was the smartest decision I’ve made in a while. This book has all the ingredients of perfect escapism. It’s nonsensical and hilarious. It goes to another world, which is full of utter ridiculousness. Perhaps best of all: Grown-ups are not allowed.

If you’re overwhelmed, anxious, sad, or angry—whether it’s about your personal life, what’s happening in the world, or all of the above—I highly recommend falling headfirst into a book.

Make it something good.

Related: Reading Doesn’t Just Make You Literate

Three Interesting Facts (IFs): C’est Moi

Normally I wouldn’t write a blog post listing three interesting facts about myself. But I have a reason. I recently had two school visits where the students asked: 

What are your three IFs?

In BLACKBIRD FLY, my main character Apple Yengko believes that every person on Earth has at least three interesting facts (IFs) about them. Throughout the book she lists different IFs for various people in her middle-school world. So it makes sense that astute young readers would ask what my three IFs are. The problem is, I’ve never had an answer because I’ve never given it much thought.

Well, guess what, folks. I conjured up three interesting Erin facts. Whether or not they’re interesting is up to you, of course. But either way, they’re still facts. Drumroll please!

IF #1. I’m Filipino-American.

My mother is from Sogod, Southern Leyte. When I was a kid I was embarrassed of my heritage, but now I’m older and wiser. I’ve learned that it’s best to embrace what makes you different rather than conform to what’s “normal.” (There really is no such thing, you know).

IF #2. Asthma.

I have chronic asthma. When I was in elementary school, my asthma was so severe that my body would seize. Asthma attacks can cause sudden stiffness of the neck, which makes it difficult to move. Sometimes I’d just lay there crying for my mother. Luckily, she’d show up fast with warm cloths and medicine. Because I was sick all the time, I missed a lot of school and I spent a lot of time watching Pinwheel on Nickelodeon, which I loved.

Asthma is really irritating. It’s like an annoying nag that’s always hanging out in the background, ready to pounce and ruin your afternoon. It could be much worse, though.

Maybe one day I’ll write an asthmatic character …

IF #3. Rare books!

Rare books are one of my most favorite things. (By the way, when you’re asthmatic, rare book stores can be a challenge. But that’s how much I-heart-books). Here’s a few from my collection.

EllisBell

Wuthering Heights. This is my most prized book. It took a great deal of research for me to figure out what year this was printed. Turns out, it’s from 1848. I knew it was an early edition because it was printed under Emily Bronte’s pen name, which was only used for about two years. I also found out that Emily Dickinson had this same edition on her bookshelf when she died. (Not the same book, just the same edition). I would love to own an original first UK edition of Wuthering Heights, but it costs about $14K. But at least now you know what to get me for Christmas.


 

uncle-toms-cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first time I read this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I still don’t. But it’s an important book in the American canon, for better or worse, so when I found this at Macaluso Rare Books in Kennet Square, PA, I picked it up. This is an abridged edition for children from 1900, published about 50 years after the original.


 

1831

The History of the United States, 1831. What were historians teaching people about our nation’s history back in 1831? You don’t want to know. But check out the inscription. (I love inscriptions!) Apparently this book belonged to Caleb Hollingsworth before it was given to Joshua Hollingsworth in February 1847.

What about you, dear reader? What are your three IFs?

 

Why Do I Write Middle-Grade?

Because we’re all 12.

girlonbooks

Were you bullied at 12? I bet you remember that bully’s name. I bet you could tell me what his face looked like, or the color of her hair.

Did you ever feel awkward? I bet you remember where you were and what that felt like. You can still feel the sweat on your palms and the weight on your chest.

Were you ever left out? You can describe what that was like. The party you weren’t invited to, the lunchtable with no chairs.

Did you ever feel alone? Like the world moved around everyone but you, and you couldn’t tell anyone because you didn’t really understand it? You just felt … incomplete, maybe. Or different, even if you didn’t seem different. And you weren’t sure what made you different, only that everyone else seemed to know a secret and someone forgot to tell you.

Did you ever want to disappear? Maybe for a day, maybe for a lifetime, because life felt too complicated, too awkward, too lonely. And grown-ups told you that you still weren’t in the “real world,” and you had to wonder: If this isn’t real, what is?

Does it make your heart sink, even now, to remember 12?

When you felt bullied, awkward, left out, or alone, did you ever disappear into a book? And for that page or that chapter, you were in another world—one that made more sense, or felt more genuine, or invited you in, warts and all?

Yes?

That’s why I write middle grade.

Celebrate #ChildrensBookWeek

The Apple Yengko Playlist

‘Readers will be scurrying to find the music on Apple’s list of favorite songs, many of them by the Beatles. Those titles are included in all the chapter titles as well, giving readers a tantalizing hint of events about to unfold.’ – Booklist

There’s a lotta music in BLACKBIRD FLY. You probably figured that out. Twelve-year-old Apple Yengko loves music. She listens to the Beatles so often that she considers them the soundtrack to her life (and let’s face it, her life isn’t going very well). Perhaps you’re a Beatles novice, or you only recognized a few songs in the book, or you didn’t recognize any. Whatever the case, below are some of the songs referenced throughout #blackbirdfly. I hope you follow the links, take a listen, and love them as much as Apple does.

1. Blackbird, The Beatles

2. Sunshine Life for Me, Ringo Starr

3. Let it Be, The Beatles

4. For No One, The Beatles

5. Across the Universe, The Beatles

6. Hello, Goodbye, The Beatles

7. Act Naturally, The Beatles

8. Money (That’s What I Want), The Beatles

9. I Will, The Beatles

10. Not Guilty, The Beatles

11. From Me to You, The Beatles

12. Elephant Shoes, Eleisha Eagle

13. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, The Beatles

14. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles

15. Yesterday, The Beatles

16. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, The Beatles

17. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, The Beatles

18. Penny Lane, The Beatles

19. Don’t Let Me Down, The Beatles

20. The Long and Winding Road, The Beatles

21. I am the Walrus, The Beatles

22. The Ballad of John and Yoko, The Beatles

23. Sunshine, Matt Costa

24. Mr. Pitiful, Matt Costa

25. Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, The Beatles

26. A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles

27. Get Back, The Beatles

28. Eight Days a Week, The Beatles

29. Dear Prudence, The Beatles

30. Getting Better, The Beatles

31. I’ll Follow the Sun, The Beatles

32. Oh! Darling, The Beatles

33. Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles

The Novelista Asks Me 10 Questions … and I answer them

sisterhoodblog[1]Many thanks to Briana Morgan of The Novelista, who nominated me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award! Which means I have to answer her 10 awesome questions. I heart questions. Here goes:

What’s your fondest book-related memory?

Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of my mother reading to me at bedtime. Our favorite book was Cat in the Hat. The more we read together the more I wanted to create my own stories and in second grade I “officially” made the decision to be a writer. That’s when my dad became my first publisher. He would staple the loose leaf papers of my stories together—sometimes even with book covers made of cardboard marked with “Kelly Publishing”—so I could have a “real book” like a “real writer.” Those are still some of my favorite stories.

First novel you remember reading on your own? How did it make you feel?

I can’t remember the first official book I read on my own, but it was probably Judy Blume. Halfway Down Paddy Lane by Jean Marzollo was also a favorite. I’d check it out of the library again and again.

What’s your favorite time of day?

Mid-morning. Like, 10-ish.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind?

It depends on what I’m working on. When I wrote BLACKBIRD FLY, I listened to the Beatles on repeat (for obvious reasons). Most of the time I listen to classical music. I love quirky, upbeat bands, like the B52s or They Might Be Giants, but I can’t listen to peppy songs when my characters are being introspective. And when you write coming-of-age, that’s pretty much all they do.

What’s one of your pet peeves when it comes to writing? What errors or quirks make you cringe whenever you come across them?

I don’t like self-indulgent writing—when it’s more about the writer than the reader. I can’t cite a specific example, but I know it when I see it.

If you could hang out with any author for a day, living or dead, who would it be? What would you do together?

My first instinct is to say one of the Bronte sisters, but I kinda like how they’re mysterious to me. So I’ll go with Kurt Vonnegut. He seems like a cool dude. I’m not sure what we’d do. He’d probably smoke cigarettes.

How do you feel about writing in multiple genres?

I love it, because I do it. I’ve written MG horror, a YA thriller, and I write lots of short stories and flash fiction. And I read in many multiple genres, as well—fiction, non-fiction, MG, YA, adult literary, horror, Gothic, whatever.

What’s something you need to do right now that you put off to answer these questions?

Writing! But this counts as writing, right?

What’s your favorite quote? Who said it?

That’s tough to say. It depends on my mood. Right now the quote on my Facebook page is from Rod Serling: “To the wishes that come true, to the strange, mystic strength of the human animal, who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension all its own.”

What’s your favorite Disney movie?

The Sword in the Stone.

Moon-Eating Dragons, Pineapple Girls, and Other Filipino Tales I Don’t Know

I was born and raised in America. (Born in Kansas and raised in Louisiana, to be exact.) There weren’t many Filipinos in my school. I’ve never shared a classroom with one in my life, except maybe in college, where classes were too big to notice. But when I was a little girl, I noticed. Believe me. You always notice when you’re the Other.

From my experience, people approach Otherness in one of two ways: They’re either super-proud or super-embarrassed.

Unfortunately, I was the latter.

Because I wanted blue eyes and blonde hair, I chose to ignore the Filipino part of my identity. It wasn’t until I got older (and yes, wiser) that I appreciated my heritage. That’s when I started to ask my mother questions. What was it like when you were growing up? What kinds of things did kids do? What were the schools like? Were you scared when you came to America? What was it like when you first came here?

(Thankfully, it’s never too late to learn more about where you came from. I don’t care if you’re 30-*cough-cough* like me, or 101.)

When Filipino poet Barbara Jane Reyes shared 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Filipino Myths and Legends on her FB page recently, I realized yet again how much I have to learn about my background. All the stories. All the legends. All the tales! I know of Rip Van Winkle, but not of Pina. I’ve heard of Poseiden, but not Magwayen.

So, the link was right: I didn’t know any of those five things.

But I know now.

1985’s Teen Wolf, Stupid? Uh, I think not.

For some reason Teen Wolf has popped into my life a few times over the past several weeks. (And I’m talking about the super-awesome 1985 film starring Michael J. Fox, not the whatever TV series, which I have never seen). It all started when the movie came on one of those ambiguous channels and then my sister reminded me via Twitter that the movie is about 30 years old, which is shocking since I haven’t aged a day.

Continue reading “1985’s Teen Wolf, Stupid? Uh, I think not.”

We’re All “Creatives”

When I was in college, one of my professors gave the class a timed assignment:

List at least fifty things you can do with a brick.

 


Everyone started scribbling, including me. But my scribbling didn’t last long. I can’t remember how many ideas occurred to me. Maybe ten.

As I watched everyone else draft immense lists (two people sailed past fifty and kept going!), I chewed the end of my pencil and quietly suffered from personal embarrassment. I was a writer, after all. I was “creative.” That’s what people always said, ever since I was a kid. Erin is a writer, she’s creative. Surely I could come up with more than ten imaginative uses for a brick, other than the obvious. Panic set in. I’m not as creative as I thought. I’m not that imaginative after all. I CAN’T SEE PAST THE OBVIOUS. What’s wrong with me? I’m a writer!

Needless to say, none of this helped me conjure up new ideas.

Eventually, though, I figured something out.

Everyone is creative in different ways and in different conditions.

There’s a myth that being “creative” means something tangible and specific, but it doesn’t. Nothing is ever that simple, least of all people.

As David Burkus says, “We tend to think of creativity in terms reminiscent of the ancient muses: divinely-inspired, unpredictable, and bestowed upon a lucky few.”

But just as creativity comes in different forms, it’s also sparked under varied conditions and doled out to everyone (in some form), from accountants to artists. Burkus argues that practicality and reality can and should be symbiotic with creativity. I agree.

In this article, Bill Breen further debunks the idea that some of us are “creative” and some of us are “non-creative” and instead embraces the idea that anyone with a brain is capable of doing creative work. “Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, talent (and) motivation.”

He also points out that money doesn’t encourage creativity. Neither does pressure or fear.

By the way, the person who came up with the most uses for a brick was a health major. Not a “creative.” And he thought of more than seventy.