Erin Entrada Kelly Draws (Literally) From Her Life in a New Illustrated Middle Grade Series

By Erin Entrada Kelly

“Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey,” the first book in a new series by Erin Entrada Kelly, is about friendship, and about fear.

Marisol Rainey is a child in the grip of anxiety. The kind of anxiety that stops her from doing the things she wants to do. Marisol is scared of swimming, and new places, and overwhelming relatives, and being alone in the car. “Why do I have to be scared of everything all the time? No one else is, Marisol thinks.”

She believes she alone has this sort of anxiety. So she would be good company for readers going through something similar. Marisol is proof, in case they’re worried, that they are not the only ones.

Marisol sees the personalities of things, and gives them the respect she thinks they deserve by naming them. The fridge is Buster (for Buster Keaton, who had “a lot happening under the surface”), the sofa is Betty Bigmouth (it “likes to eat things”).

The tree in her new backyard? She names it after a character played by another silent movie star, Mary Pickford. “Marisol said, ‘Hello, Peppina.’ Like she was greeting a bowl of cold oatmeal.” Falling is one of Marisol’s greatest fears. Through most of the book she is frozen on the ground — palms sweating, heart pounding — while her big brother, Oz; his best friend, Stu; her cat, Jelly Beans; and her best friend, Jada George, sit up in Peppina, legs swinging. This does not matter to Jada. “That’s the thing about best friends,” Marisol notes. “They don’t care about all the things you can’t do.”

Friendship is a common theme in Kelly’s novels, which vividly evoke the vulnerability and anguish of early adolescence, when friendship is of the utmost importance. In her Newbery Medal-winning “Hello, Universe,” she puts her finger on why children choose to accept the cruelties of not-so-good friends: “Bad friends were better than no friends,” the deaf Valencia explains. “And besides, I thought they were my real friends in the first place.”

So it comes as a relief that Marisol Rainey has a good friend. And that she knows how to be a good friend herself. When she takes out her frustration on Jada, she apologizes, then decides to tell the whole truth: “I’m mad at myself.”

This is a book of truths, witty insights and metaphors, and — for the first time — Kelly’s own illustrations, which are lightheartedly poignant.

Marisol, like Kelly, is Filipino American. The other characters are from many different backgrounds, and have many different ways of seeing and interacting with the world. In Kelly’s books it is normal to be different. The characters struggle with their difference, but Kelly’s matter-of-fact language shows us how normal difference is. It’s one of the things I love about her books, along with her spot-on depictions of childhood.

“Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey” does not pack the same punch as “Hello, Universe” or her most recent novel, “We Dream of Space” — both so gritty and so brave. This is a softer, gentler book, for readers on the lower end of the 8-to-12 range.

At the end, Marisol suddenly climbs Peppina. But Kelly does not tell us how Marisol overcomes her fear, when desire and determination have failed her every time before. What gets her up into Peppina this time? Any reader who is sometimes frozen by anxiety would love to know.

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