New York Times bestselling author and accomplished storyteller Carmen Deedy inspired hundreds of elementary school teachers at this year’s Arts Express teacher’s conference. Throughout the conference, she shared experiences from her life and gave advice to teachers who were searching for better ways to influence their students.
We had the opportunity to catch up with her and learn about her journey as a storyteller and children’s book author.
What was Carmen Deedy's Education Experience Like?
Deedy’s journey to success was no small feat. At a young age, her family fled from Cuba to Decatur, Georgia, and she became a refugee. The culture shock was immense and she had to quickly learn how to succeed in America. Deedy began school in America as a first-grader. Through the love and patience of her teachers, she refined her English skills. She specifically mentioned three educators who influenced her.
In first grade, her teacher Miss Burns taught her the proper sounds of English letters, which allowed her to read independently. However, young Deedy didn’t care to read much. She preferred comic books because they had visual support, and at the time, she didn’t know that she had dyslexia. Everything changed for her when she got stuck in the public library on a hot summer day and the head librarian, Miss MacReynolds, introduced her to Charlotte’s Web. She recalled that this was when “I promptly fell in love with my first English-language chapter book.”
In high school, she was taught to diagram sentences by Ms. Jolinda Collins, who introduced her to the notion that language had structure. Then, Ms. Collins gave her a copy of Hamlet. Deedy says, “that changed my life, as I realized what words could do in the hands of a genius like William Shakespeare.”
What got Carmen Deedy into Writing Books?
When she was a child, Deedy loved to hear and tell stories. She recalls that “storytelling, for me, was something that my family did when we were at the dinner table or on long road trips. Stories were simply part of everyday conversation. A trip to the dry cleaners would become dinner time entertainment.”
While reflecting on her time as a young mother, she says, “I was not a fabulous story teller. Everyone presumes that my children heard the most magnificent bedtime stories. Really, we just read books at bedtime.”
One day, Carmen was outside doing spring cleaning and beating some feather pillows. Feathers were flying everywhere and her oldest daughter, who was eight-years-old at the time, asked, “Mom, where did those feathers come from?” Carmen attempted to give a simple answer— “the pillow of course”—but that wasn’t enough explanation for her daughter. Carmen chuckled and said, “I had to fess up that there were birds involved!”
The rest of the day was filled with more questions about where different household items came from and how they were made. After this experience, Carmen was inspired to write her first book Agatha’s Feather Bed. She was published by a regional publisher Peachtree Publishers, Ltd. She feels very fortunate to have published with them for so many years.
What Is Carmen Deedy’s Biggest Advice for Writers?
Deedy continues to learn each day as an author. She cautions anyone who views their work as complete. She says, “Look at your writing as an organic and living thing. It is expanding and contracting. Great writers write, and write, and write; rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. They go to cemeteries and do rubbings and find wonderful names for their characters. They sit in a waffle house and hear a great story and listen to the dialogue so they can incorporate it into their characters.”
“An author needs to be humble and open to critique in order to create a work that transcends,” Deedy explains. “A great work transcends differences in culture, religion, and politics. Nearly anyone can approach it and find meaning.”
How Does Carmen Feel That Children’s Books Affect Society?
Carmen believes that “children’s books often affect us more deeply than adult fiction because we are exposed to the stories at such a vulnerable age.” She often asks adults if they can remember a book they loved as a child. When she asks this question, she says the responses vary from “growing quizzical, to having an ‘aha’ moment, to softening and getting teary-eyed.” She goes on to say, “Great stories stay with you your whole life. Specifically, a great picture book, because it can influence how you see the world. The marriage of beautiful art and a wonderful story makes something unforgettable for a child.”
Who Is Carmen Deedy’s Biggest Inspiration?
Deedy loved her father dearly and believes he was a truly gifted storyteller. She says, “From the moment he was born he was an innate story constructor.” She explains that he was never the type of person that drew attention to himself. People were just drawn to him. At family reunions, he would be sitting in the shade and a couple of people would gather around to hear him narrate events from his life.
“His storytelling was good,” Carmen remarks, “because he would reach into the audience and bring them into the story. He was very present and authentic and was just a very human teller. If he made a mistake he just saw it as an opportunity to let the story be organic and alive.” Carmen learned from her father that “mistakes are human. Just laugh at yourself and stop to explain to the audience. You can recover from any messed-up sequence in a story by inserting ‘did I forget to tell you?’”
Out of all the lessons she learned from her father, she believes “the greatest one was to always make sure the audience is enjoying themselves. Treat the audience as you would a visitor on your front porch. Hand them a glass of iced tea, and bring out your best story for them.”
Writer: Ashley Young
Contact: Shauna Valentine (801) 422-8562