Children's book author and storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy has won more than a dozen awards for her work. She was born in Havana, Cuba, and emigrated to the United States with her family in 1963 during the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Her most recent books are "The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale" (Peachtree) and "The Library Dragon Book" (Peachtree). She is appearing with her husband, musician John McCutcheon, in a storytelling performance.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
- 2011 Book Festival Webcast
- 2009 Book Festival Webcast
- 2007 Book Festival Audio
- 2007 Book Festival Webcast
- 2002 Book Festival Webcast
What sparked your imagination for your book –The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale?
I arrived in England in the summer of 2002, cheerfully anticipating the first leg of a business trip. My three girls had accompanied me, and we had planned to wedge in as much sight-seeing as a few free days--and a writer’s limited budget--would allow.
They’re a gamey lot, my girls, and that is how we ended up on Fleet Street one misty evening, long after we should have been in bed. As we walked along the Thames, discussing the delectably ghastly mummy exhibit at the British Museum that afternoon, one of them spied an alleyway, through which shone a pale light.
A wrought iron and glass sign read (with little attempt at modesty): “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Rebuilt 1667.” But then, if you had survived the Great London Fire of 1666, and outlived 14 monarchs, you might be forgiven a bit of braggadocio.
Once inside, we knew we had entered a remarkable—no—a singularly remarkable place. A true English public house; one that had in many ways remained unchanged for centuries. I almost expected to stumble upon a bewhiskered Samuel Johnson (he lived nearby). Charles Dickens penned his stories by a cozy hearth on the main floor. There were twisting stairways, hidden alcoves, weathered doors, and sawdust on the oiled floor planks. And rooms! So many rooms! It was in one of these that we discovered a very old, very compelling etching of cats, feasting at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
“Whatever would cats be doing in the inn?” asked one of the girl.
“Well, it’s the Cheshire Cheese isn’t it? Mice are notorious cheese thieves.
The mice are here for the cheese, the cats are here for the mice.”
“Ah-ha!” I joined in, “But what if ONE of those cats is an imposter? What if the very idea of eating a mouse disgusted him? What if he had come for the cheese?” Groans followed. Life with a writer can be trying.
Still, the story continued to slowly unspool throughout the rest of the trip; and with the help of my daughter, Erin, I managed to write the arc (the bones of the tale) in a spiral notebook on the transatlantic flight home. Some days later, I filed the story away with others languishing in literary purgatory.
And then, some years later, I met the marvelously gifted Randall Wright at a conference. When I told him the story, he suggested we write it together—I was new to middle grade fiction and he had several YA novels under his belt. I was very tempted.
But could we do it? How do you begin to write a novel with another person?
I don’t know about other writing teams, but here is how we did it, and, miraculously, it worked for us: We each wrote a chapter, and then the other one rewrote it. Each chapter was passed back and forth between us––dozens of times––until we found the right voice. I’m leaving out the part about months of research, and countless hours of editing—but they were there, believe you me. And they were worth it.
The collaboration on The Cheshire Cheese Cat was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I can recall. Randall assures me that such is the case for him, as well. And we hope the children who read it will love reading about Pip and Skilley, and that glorious old tavern, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, as much we loved writing the story for them.
Can you tell us about your storytelling experiences – how did you get started? Any advice for budding storytellers?
I began telling stories as a volunteer in my daughters’ school. But I grew up hearing stories from Cuban and Southern storytellers, and I learned a great deal by just being quiet and listening.
Advice for young storytellers:
Listen to great storytellers; slowly, you will learn about voice, timing, tension, structure, climax—all the things you need to tell stories that will capture the imagination of your audience.
Choose your material with care. If you tell stories you love, you will never tell them with indifference—take it to the bank.
Listening to others does not mean you should sound like them; find your own voice by telling stories as authentically as possible. It’s the hallmark of a great storyteller. I’ve heard say, “But all the great stories have been told.” To that I would answer, “Perhaps. But they haven’t been told by you.”
Anything else new and exciting that you would like to share with your fans?
Yes! The Library Dragon Returns is slated for a Fall 2012 release, and Refugee, a story about displaced mice, will hopefully follow in 2012-2013. Both are picture books.
I am currently working on two chapter books: Dill and Corky, and an untitled middle grade suspense novel.
From the 2009 National Book Festival
Where did you get your ideas for your newest picture book – 14 Cows for America? How did you meet Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah and learn about his story? How did you go about collaborating with him to write the book?
From my front porch stoop. On a lovely Georgia day in April of 2002 I picked up the New York Times and found myself instantly drawn to an article that was accompanied by striking photographs. The pictures were of Maasai men and women in brilliant dress. One shot was exceptionally poignant. It captured a handful of women holding a hastily made sign. It read, “We send these cows to help you, September 11 tragedy.” Never lifting my eyes from the page, I lowered myself onto the stoop and I read the entire article––beautifully penned by Marc Lacey of the NYT––and cried my heart out.
It was several years before I could approach the event that day in Enoosan, Kenya, with the purpose of writing a children’s book. In the weeks and months that followed 9/11 we (by which I mean most Americans) were too raw to even imagine creating fiction out of that horrible day. The beauty of this story of course is that it isn’t about the people who attacked us. They are never referred to, except obliquely. The tale is about friends yet unmade, strangers who showed us, in our most broken moments, one small act of compassion and solidarity.
And so, the story stayed with me. As the years passed, I faithfully collected interviews, articles, books––in short, anything that might help inform me of the history that was the framework behind the narrative. By 2007 I had a manuscript for a children’s picture book, and a contract.
To my chagrin, there was still an essential element absent from the story: Kimeli. His blessing, and possibly his involvement, was essential before I could move forward. I also wanted to make sure that he had no interest in writing a children’s book himself. Had that been the case, we would have waited for his book and possibly published at a future date, or possibly set the project aside entirely.
To our great good fortune, once I was able to locate Kimeli, he gave the book his blessing, agreed to write an afterword, and most importantly, offered to interpret the cultural nuances in the story that ultimately gave the text and illustrations their authentic feel.
The story was written when I approached Kimeli, but he offered more than one excellent suggestion to the text. It was by his request that I added a meeting with the elders prior to the telling of the story to the village; this was a very important bit of protocol that was absent from the news reports and articles my “cold research” had yielded. He also asked whether I might include the name of his cow, Enkarus. He was still very tender in his memory of her. It was lovely to be able to give his gift a name.
Can you tell us about any new books or literary projects that you will be working on during the coming year?
- A new picture book, Refugee, is scheduled for publication in the next 18 to 24 months.
- Next year heralds The Return of the Library Dragon, once again illustrated by the inimitable Michael P. White. This time Lotta Scales takes on the excess of technology in children’s libraries––“I’m back to fight the Cyberbeast!” Um, those are her words, not mine.
- Tom Gonzalez (illustrator of 14 Cows for America) and I are teaming up for another picture book, and possibly a graphic novel, The Brave Little Rooster.
- Lastly, 2011 is the targeted publication date of a Young Adult novel the working title (as of today) is The Cheshire Cheese Cat. It is set in London, includes talking mice and Charles Dickens, and has been the most fun I have ever had while writing. It is a result of joint authorship with the very talented YA author, Randall Wright.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about your work?
From the 2007 National Book Festival
How did you begin to write your latest work, Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale?
I've always loved the traditional version of this story. La Cucarachita Martina, or, Martina the Little Cockroach, is the Cuban folk tale, which tells of a tiny cockroach who goes a-courting - or, more accurately - sits on her balcony to be a-courted. As enacted by my marvelous storytelling mother, Martina was a true coquette, who drew many suitors before finding her perfect match. I loved the story so much that as soon as it ended, I was already begging, 'Otra vez!' (Again!)
What sparks your imagination?
I was invited to speak to an assembly of Spanish-speaking children in North Georgia. Upon arriving at the school, I was told that 95% of the school population did not speak fluent English. The teachers asked me to tell a story in Spanish. Although I'm bilingual, the repertoire of stories I've collected over the past 18 years (over 200 now) are primarily in English.
I decided one of those would have to do. I would translate the story to Spanish in my head, as I went along. Then, before I could begin, an enormous insect flew across the gymnasium and over the heads of the squealing children. It was a "palmetto bug." This is nothing more, nor less, than a deceptive southern euphemism for a COCKROACH.
In the interest of science, I told the children this. They made dreadful noises of disgust. As our unwelcome guest slipped away through an open air vent, I knew exactly which story I needed to tell: Martina.
I told it just as I remembered my mother telling it. Although I was speaking, it was Mami telling the story - complete with character voices, gestures and sound effects. No sooner had I finished, than my young audience was chanting, 'Otra vez! Otra vez!'
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
The hardest part is making the time to write. Not finding the time to write, mind you. Making.
I've learned to seize the moments when they appear. I cannot always write at the same time, in the same place. I work, travel and have a vigorous family life. If I'm stranded in an airport lobby - I write. If I have to wait in a doctor's office - I write. If I have a morning or evening to myself - I write. And sometimes I just turn off the cell phone and leave town. Of course, then…I don't always write.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Read, read, read. Read GOOD books. You will strengthen your understanding of story. Your vocabulary will be the richer for it. If you don't know where to start, ask your librarian for help finding books on topics that interest or excite you. You're more likely to finish a book you enjoy, than one that feels like literary drudgery.
Great writing and a killer story: that's what you're looking for.
Do you know a fun writing topic to get them started?
One morning, when you are at the breakfast table, your dog talks to you. No one else in the room seems to hear him. It took all the telepathic energy he could muster to send you this one all-important message: what does he say?
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
- Eloise by Kay Thompson
- Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
- Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel
- Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
- Dr. Desoto by William Steig
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard
- Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner
- They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson
- Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber
- God Bless the Gargoyles by Dav Pilkey
- Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
What advice can you give to aspiring storytellers?