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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Have you read Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut fantasy? If the answer is no, do yourself a favor and read it. Kelly’s novel is inspired by Filipino folklore that resonates as a memorable coming-of-age story about loyalty, friendship, individuality, beauty, and heroism of twelve-year-old Lalani Sarita’s mother falls ill with an incurable illness, Lalani begins on a dangerous trek across the sea in the hope of safeguarding her own future.
And once we are along for the ride with Lalani. From there, a desiccation engulfs Sanlagita; there is a level of endurance from the villagers to make the most out of what remains in their community.
This novel is filled to the brim with emotion and adventure that, at times, could be a scary version of a Grimms’ fairy tale. Kelly delivers a story that will linger with readers until the very end. It is rich with descriptions that are vivid and surreal. Lalani is a strong character, and there were times where my heart was in my throat from not knowing if Lalani was going to die. Eventually, Lalani finds the honesty behind the darkness covering this surreptitious Mount Isa. Refusing to give up is a message that lingers throughout this book. If you were captivated by The Girl Who Drank the Moon and Jumbies, you will enjoy this book because it has all of the ingredients of an appropriate take on Filipino folklore that is universal for readers to make this a future classic.

Now, what are your thoughts? We want to know! Let’s talk.

Annisha Jeffries About Annisha Jeffries

Annisha Jeffries is the head of the youth services department at Cleveland Public Library. She was a member of the 2007 ALSC Board and served on several selection committees, including the 2018 Caldecott Committee. A 2000-2001 Spectrum Scholarship recipient, Jeffries is currently the Chair of the Norman A, Sugarman Children's Biography Award.
She can be reached at


  1. Lalani of the Distant Sea is one of my favorite reads of this year. I loved the short but powerful chapters and the multiple perspectives. I particularly loved the character of Hetsbi and his struggle with cowardice and courage. The second-person chapters from the perspectives of the different creatures were enthralling, and I enjoyed how no character was static. The multiple plot threads are woven wonderfully well, and while there were lots of characters and creatures to remember, the story eventually comes together. Kelly’s debut fantasy deals with similar themes as Hello, Universe: finding your voice, the importance of standing up for others, conformity versus nonconformity, isolation and unlikely heroism. I will be surprised and, frankly, a bit sad if this book is not at least given a Newbery honor. It at least deserves consideration.

    • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

      I totally agree with the message of finding your voice. Kelly, masterfully takes the reader a beautiful journey while never treating the character like a cartoon. I hope the Newbery will consider it.

  2. LAILANI is one of only a few books I’ve had time to read this year. I liked it very much. At first I found the short chapters from the creature’s perspective distracting from the flow of the overall story. But this choice made it possible for the creatures to appear in the flow of the story later without awkward exposition. There are quite a few girl-centric fantasies set in non-western mythology at the moment and so far this is the most graceful way to introduce the unfamiliar that I’ve seen. I also appreciated that it didn’t fit neatly into the usual Riorden-style formulas that are very appealing to readers but make me uncomfortable when they place a western set of values on a mythology that might actually hold different priorities. LAILANI definately held her own and felt true to the originating culture

  3. Caitlin Tormey says:

    My “heart was in my throat” for most of this read as well! There are so many elements of folklore and fairytale that are given heart and depth. Like Meredith mentioned, the themes of cowardice/courage are examined in a way that is mindful of the child audience. I look forward to seeing all the awards this mighty book receives 🙂

    • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

      Caitlin, I will definitely be on pins and needles come January. I would really like to listen to the audio book as well to see if has the same impact.

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    The Newbery Criteria list “appropriateness of style” as a distinguished quality to look for and LALANI really shines in that area, both in the sentences and in the structure of the novel. The author takes her time in building her world, developing characters, and adding points of view. As a reader, I was curious, but not hooked, during the first part of the book. She trusts readers to follow, without spelling everything out or doing too much foreshadowing. And the cumulative effect of this consistently builds the farther we get into the novel.
    Rosanne notes that the creature interludes were distracting at first, and I had the same experience. But by the time I was halfway through, I had completely settled into the storytelling form. Each new point of view became part of a larger mythology that she built slowly but steadily, and they also served to heighten plot tension. We read about the Whenbo root and how it comforts dead souls (255-256), and it’s intriguing; but it also sets up that powerful moment twenty pages later when Lalani hears her father’s name in the tree (256). And I love the way the second interlude (“Imagine you are a Sanglagitan. Things are as they’ve always been” (57)) ultimately gets replaced by that very satisfying final chapter (“Imagine you’re a Sanlagitan. Things are no longer as they were” (383)).

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    LALANI also makes me think of that elusive “individually distinct” term from the Criteria. I can’t think of a book from this year that I’d compare it to. Maybe SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES, for the mixture of storytelling, multiple plot threads and points of view? From previous years I think of Grace LIn’s WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON trio and maybe Adam Gitwitz’s GRIMM books. And Annisha notes a couple of others above (JUMBIES and THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON). But LALANI seems very fresh and original in ways that I don’t see so far in other fiction from this year.

    • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

      Steven, I agree LALANI does seem fresh and original. I’m not comparing it to Hello Universe, but I like this better.

  6. Kate Mccue-Day says:

    I am very bias because I absolutely adore Erin Entrada Kelly. I saw her on book tour shorty after reading this book. I am not typically a fantasy reader but I really loved this book. I loved the 2nd person creature chapters because it’s so rare in a book and was really fun reading them to my students. Lalani was such a great character, I loved that she wasn’t the typical hero.

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