Two-time Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest book, The First State of Being (Greenwillow Books, March 5), takes place in the summer of 1999, when the anxious biracial Asian American protagonist, Michael, can’t stop obsessing about Y2K. Even without the possible end of the world approaching, Michael has plenty to worry about: He and his single mother struggle with money, he’s dreading starting a new school year, and he has an unrequited crush on his babysitter, Gibby, whose lack of romantic interest constantly reminds him of his shortcomings. Michael’s perseveration pauses when he and Gibby meet Ridge, a boy who claims to be a time traveler and encourages Michael to live in the present. The boys develop a friendship that teaches them both about worry, love, and valuing what Ridge calls the “first state of being.”

Like all of Kelly’s books, The First State of Being is warm, thoughtful, and full of unexpected twists and turns. I recently spoke to the author about her writing process, researching the year 1999, and channeling her own childhood anxiety. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come up with the title, The First State of Being?

The book is set in Delaware, and Delaware is the first state. It’s on all our license plates here, so it’s a shoutout to Delaware and also to the present moment.

Speaking of the present moment, why did you decide to write about time travel?

In many ways, the book is a love letter to When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which is one of my favorite books and also includes time travel. But it all started with Michael. I was a lot like Michael when I was a kid—a worrier. The book is me channeling myself through Michael, but also letting him be himself. Then I thought about how I could marry Michael’s story with time travel.

Why did you set the book in 1999?

We’re living in a very anxious time right now. People have a lot of anxiety about a lot of things for a lot of valid reasons. And being a kid is already an anxiety-provoking experience! Y2K was a natural reason for Michael to be anxious; setting the story in 1999 allowed me to explore the timeless nature of anxiety.

One of Michael’s sources of anxiety is money. I really appreciate this, because we rarely see working-class Asian American kids in fiction.

In a lot of books today—and definitely when I was a kid—money is not mentioned. It’s just assumed that the family has money or is middle class, or at least lower-middle class. But when I was growing up, money was definitely an issue. It’s certainly an issue for many, many families, especially now. I wanted to reflect that reality.

How did you research the time period?

I was an adult in 1999, but it’s hard to remember where we were as a society with technology because everything has happened so quickly since the internet. I did some deep googling and used the Wayback Machine to look at websites from back then to try to figure out where we were, technology-wise.

I also read a lot of articles about Y2K. I did newspaper research because I remember that Y2K was all anyone talked about back then. I bought a Y2K survival guide written by a survivalist who thought that everything was going to shut down, and that helped inform how I wrote Michael. I bought a stack of TV Guides from August and September of 1999, which helped a lot. I also watched commercials from [that time]. And I reread the Christopher Pike book [Last Act] that Gibby’s reading.

I loved the Pike reference, but isn’t Judy Blume one of your favorite authors? Why not include a book by her?

Good question! I do love Judy Blume, but I really wanted Gibby to read Christopher Pike because he’s such a 1990s cornerstone. Plus, I wanted Gibby to be reading a mystery.

How did you figure out Ridge’s reactions to 1999?

Most of my decisions [while] writing Ridge came from thinking about time-traveling 200 years. If I traveled to 200 years in the past, what kinds of things would interest me? And the things that would interest me are the everyday things. That’s why Ridge is so fascinated by things like phones and microwaves and cars.

I feel like I learned a lot about Ridge from the transcripts of his family’s conversations in the future. What inspired you to include those?

I wanted the book to solidly stay with Michael’s perspective. But it became clear to me that I needed to show Ridge’s point of view as well, and to show the world he’s coming from, to provide context for Michael’s world. Plus, I wanted readers to understand how and why Ridge got to 1999 and that his family cares a lot about him and are searching frantically for him. So that’s how all those transcripts came to be.

I noticed a lot of parallels between Ridge’s and Michael’s relationships with their mothers.

I definitely intended to show a parallel relationship between mothers and sons. The biggest difference is that Michael clearly understands that his mother loves and cares for him. I wanted to show a single mom who’s trying her best. And even though she works all the time, they still have this loving, close connection. Ridge maybe doesn’t have that same closeness with his mother, but I wanted to show that it’s there, even if Ridge doesn’t perceive it.

The book alludes to future technologies, but we never get to see them. Do you know what they look like?

Yes! I didn’t put them in because, like Ridge says, a bunch of inventions have to happen before the technology happens in the future world. I have ideas about everything, including the internal device that Ridge has under his skin. They’re just not in the book.

What else don’t we see in the book?

There’s more backstory—like Ridge’s competitive relationship with his siblings and their collective relationship with their mother. But I didn’t want to get too much into that because I wanted to leave room for the reader’s imagination.

You’ve thought everything out so carefully! Do you outline your stories before you write?

Before I start writing, I always have a beginning, middle, and end of a story in mind. I have a very, very clear picture of who the characters are, and I have an idea of how I want the characters to change. Kind of like a story shape. Because if you can see how your story is unfolding, then you’ll be able to pace yourself better. Usually, I sit with a story for months, teasing it out in my head. Once it’s taken shape in my mind, and the characters feel real to me, then I’ll start writing.

Last question: Is the Christiana Mall still in Newark, Delaware?

Yes, I go there all the time! There’s no longer a Waldenbooks or KB Toys, but there’s an amazing Barnes and Noble there, and it’s two stories. Unlike Ridge, I’m not a mall person. But I do love bookstores.

Mathangi Subramanian is a novelist, essayist, and founder of Moon Rabbit Writing Studio