Carmen Agra Deedy Talks with Roger

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Veteran (and irrepressible) storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy, along with illustrator Pete Oswald, reinvents an old fingerplay about Mr. Wiggle and Mr. Waggle to share some truth about friendship and forgiveness in her latest book, Rita & Ralph's Rotten Day.

Roger Sutton: I saw at the end of Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day that you dedicated the book to your five grandchildren.

Carmen Agra Deedy: I have three daughters and two stepsons. The two older daughters and one of the sons have children. My middle daughter lives here in Atlanta, not far from us. We see them almost every day.

RS: Do you ever try your manuscripts out on your grandkids or on other children?

CAD: Oh, yes. I started playing the hand game that inspired this book with them as soon as I learned it.

RS: Where did you learn it?

CAD: I learned it from a wonderful storyteller, Sherry Norfolk. She was a librarian for many years. She traveled a lot overseas, a great deal to Asia, and worked with children. When I asked, “How many children?” she said, “About three thousand at a time.” I’d rather walk on broken LEGO bricks. Are you nuts? She works with a lot of what I call the littles. And Roger, the littles strike terror into my heart. When I go into a school and they say it’s preschool time, I can feel my blood crystalize. I love them. I have them, my grandkids. But when you give me two hundred of them… When my grandson was two or three, he was a human rocket. That boy would come in and just sail all over the house. I said, “I need some new hand games, something I can sit and have him focus on.” I taught Montessori for a very brief time, thirty years ago, so I have a lot of manipulatives. I’m a really big believer in handplay. Sherry taught me this little game. Mr. Wiggle and Mr. Waggle has many names, evidently. I’d never heard of it.

RS: Yeah, I didn’t know it.

CAD: It’s from long ago, evidently, somewhere from the mists of time, meaning the 1920s or 1930s. It’s about an old man who goes to visit his friend, up the hill and down the hill, and his friend isn’t home, and so he goes back up the hill and down the hill. And his friend has gone to visit him, and goes down the hill and up the hill, and he’s not home, and he goes back home. And then they both open their doors and go outside, and oh, there you are, and that’s it.

RS: It’s a very satisfying structure.

CAD: It is, isn’t it? There’s something about it, Roger. Children love it.

RS: Patterns are really how we learn things. The storyteller does that, up the hill and down the hill, one time, and they’re going to be with you for the next one.

CAD: Every story is about patterns. I tell kids that every book they read, even little picture books, will have some embedded folklore or fairy-tale pattern, whether it’s the circular pattern, where you end up where you started, or the cumulative pattern of “This Is the House that Jack Built,” where you add one thing after the next and sometimes you subtract them. Within the human mind, I think there is a certain expectancy. Once you’ve heard any fairy tale, you expect there to be three coins in the well, three wishes. I’m working on a graphic novel about women in folktales, so this is on my mind. But the reason I love Rita & Ralph is the simplicity of it. As a storyteller, I have committed to memory over 222 stories. I say “over” because I’m learning the 223rd right now.

RS: Wow.

CAD: I know, but it’s a lifetime. If you break it down, it’s not as much as you would think.

RS: Yeah, but you still remember them.

CAD: There’s a reason. You do not memorize a story. You learn the story, so you always know what comes next. It’s as if you know your own family history. You know that your mother and father worked in a coal mine. You know that your father died when you were six. The words you choose to narrate that history will vary, depending on the audience, the person who’s telling the story, whether they’re feeling well that day, or they’re more or less animated, whether the setting lends itself, on a rainy day, to something a little more nostalgic, or on a festive day, to something that trills with all kinds of silliness. One of the things I’ve come to realize is that children are starved for stories, and they’re also starved for unobstructed, unaided play. You can watch them, but stay out of it. Give them a pot and some mud and a hose and then go get a lawn chair and sit far away. I feel like children have this missing piece in the genetic code right now, a part of the genetic code since the beginning of time. As a species, we’d go out for the hunt, and when we came back, we’d tell the story. If you couldn’t do that, you painted it on the cave wall.

RS: Why do you think we developed that?

CAD: I think there is an enate need, from the mother born, to validate our experiences. We need another human being to say, “Yes, this was wicked. Yes, this was funny. Yes, this was tragic. Yes, this was rude. Yes, this was unconscionable. Yes, this was inexorably kind.” I also believe, and this comes from constant nerd reading, that neurologically, empathy is what bonds us to others, and when we hear stories, it’s triggered. That’s why it’s called the mirror neuron — we mirror what we hear from someone else. A person who was speaking, telling the story, would have the exact same feeling as that person hearing the story. All it means, from what I can gather, is we’re wired for story, and story brings us together, brings our minds into one place.

RS: Right. The distinction you’re drawing between learning and memorizing is fascinating.

CAD: I can only say from experience what every storyteller who does this regularly will tell you: We don’t memorize. You might memorize a poem, but you don’t memorize a story.

RS: In my storytelling class in graduate school taught by Ellin Greene, she said you’d memorize a story if it were a literary tale, but if it were a folktale, you’d tell it your own way.

CAD: And she was correct. You had a wonderful teacher. A literary tale has a source and an author that are known.

RS: Right, and a text.

CAD: The author was a writer, so every word was likely carefully thought out. But a folktale is more fluid. I know children want stories, because nowadays, something is changing. When I started, I would go to a rural community. They would pay just a little money, and I was willing to drive a million miles; I got lots of practice, but also just loved it. Those children I met grew up, many of them, hearing stories on front porches, in their churches and synagogues. They were primed. Then there was a period starting about fifteen years ago when it was getting harder to get kids’ attention. The devices, it felt like, were taking over. But in the last five, six years there’s been a morphing of some sort. You walk in and they think you’re a magician. I finished a story with a bunch of first graders a few months back. It’s really quiet. The kids didn’t move. And then one child’s arm goes up, like he’s got a remote control and he starts to click it — “Tell us another one. Tell us another one.” He was trafficking in a language he understood. As far as he was concerned, I was probably Disney animatronics. They are so hungry for stories — they are amazing right now. I don’t know if you’ve heard this at all from teachers, but children seem to be having a harder time just communicating, solving their problems, talking to each other. It makes sense. They’re spending more time staring at things and not at people. They’re not developing the human skills and the verbal skills, the vocabulary.

RS: Does it now take you more time to get kids to settle into a story?

CAD: I’m having to change my beginnings a bit. But once I start, there’s something magical. They mostly settle down. Especially if I’ve been there before, they know what to expect, and their fidgets quiet down. The story does the work. But if they haven’t had anybody tell them stories, and they’re newbies, I’ll start with “You’ve heard of a wooden leg, but you may not have heard of a wooden nose.” And then I tell them the story about the man with the wooden nose.

RS: With Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day, you’ve created a literary tale from some folk material — you took on that pattern that we talked about. How does that go for you, putting a story like that down onto paper, as opposed to telling it aloud to an audience?

CAD: It’s a simple little thing — it's a wisp of a little story. I really almost dismissed it at first, until I thought of the angle of disagreement and reconciliation. The pattern decides everything. It’s like setting a foundation and framing a house. The architecture in this story was so simple that it was very strong. One part was going to happen no matter what, down the hill and up the hill. That section was already in place. It needed a beginning and it needed an ending, and it needed to have an argument. The argument needed to be a spread or two from the opening, so that there would be enough time for the characters to go back and forth. That was a challenge, because in order for everything to fit, it needed to be a little wider, a lap book. Librarians, please forgive me. I know they hate them because when they shelve them, they don’t fit, they stick out. But I love them, because to me they encourage the use of the second lap. There’s an intimacy.

RS: Yes, those trim sizes can be tricky.

CAD: So back to the argument of the story — well, how do the kids fight? They’re playing, and I made a list of different things they could be doing. They could be playing tag. Climbing trees. Chasing squirrels. Squirrels could be chasing them. Then they fight, and they have to go back and apologize. The first time Ralph apologizes, what I really wanted him to say — I put it in, took it out, put it in, took it out — when he first goes to Rita, because he inadvertently hit her with a rock, I wanted him to say “Oh, come on, Rita, it didn’t hurt that bad,” which is, to me, one of the really bad non-apology apologies. There’s a whole list of non-apology apologies: “It didn’t really hurt.” “It wasn’t that bad.” “I’m sorry you think so.” You could get a lifetime of them. We’ve heard them. We’ve used them. What we ended up with was him being grouchy and giving just an “I’M SORRY!,” and that’s rotten — very childlike and believable. And then Rita gets mad, because he’s being rude. He’s rude, but she still likes him. The story’s so full of metaphors, in its physical embodiment. The length of it means you can literally see that you have to go twice as far to make nice when you mess up. You only have to go halfway to play with somebody, but you screw it up, and guess what? You’ve got to go twice as far.

RS: True — I hadn’t thought of that! Did you have an image of what this was going to look like when you wrote it? Writing something so spare, are you seeing pictures? Because Pete Oswald, who illustrated this book, had a lot of room to do things.

CAD: Yes he did. I didn’t get to talk to him. I had so many ideas, but when, as the writer, you release the story, you just have to let go. There’s a very sweet childlike quality in these pictures. I love the colors, this palette. My inner gum-smacking eight-year-old even likes it. The books I love best take the author’s story, the text, and then the illustrator feels that they have the freedom to go further, to take the story in maybe unexpected visual places. To hide surprises, little things that children go back and notice.

RS: There’s a lot of story in the illustrations that isn’t in the text, which I love.

CAD: Tell me what you see.

RS: Even the way that the sun’s going down. The treehouse — I really want that treehouse. The dog and cat. Because the story is so spare, the illustrator had to make up a world for that story to take place in, and I feel like he did.

CAD: I love that. You just made me so happy. Because I asked for him as an illustrator. I just adore Pete.

RS: Which house do you want to live in?

CAD: I want to live in Ralph’s house. Or maybe the treehouse. I think I want to live in the treehouse.

RS: I like Rita’s house. Let’s just end on one deep question, which is why is it so difficult to tell someone that you’re sorry?

CAD: I think it’s a very Jungian word. It’s a death of self, to some degree. For some people, it’s simpler, because —

RS: They don’t mean it.

CAD: Exactly. My father said “be careful of people who say I’m sorry a lot.” First of all, why are you having to say it that often? Is it a knee-jerk? Are you just a thoughtless person and you slap “I’m sorry” on any mistake? The other thing my father told me — he was marvelous — he said be careful of people who give really grand apologies with chocolates and flowers and helicopter rides. They’ve had a lot of practice. I think to say “I’m sorry” and to mean it is not to elaborate. I saw a comment on Goodreads — I do occasionally read those — and one person said something like: “I don’t understand why Rita had to say she was sorry first, since he’s the one who hit her with a rock,” and I thought there we go. Part of “I’m sorry” is that for a real apology, there’s no this is why, I want you to understand, yeah but you did this... Even if those things are true, if you know that you have truly hurt someone, then at some point you simply stop. You even take on the portion of the guilt that is not yours in your own mind. You look the person in the eye, and you say: “I am sorry.” You know when you’ve heard a genuine one. And it’s over. It’s like flipping a switch. But the minute you start with “Why does she have to say she’s sorry first?” — oh, lord. I’ve got a great thirty-second story. You want to hear it?

RS: Yes, ma’am.

CAD: A thief was brought before the king. He’d tried to steal the king’s horse. The king was livid. It was his favorite horse. Maybe it was a bad day for the king. Maybe he was a bad king. But he sentenced the man to death. It got very quiet, and the king starts to stand up from the throne, and the thief wrestled free and ran toward the king and threw himself on the ground. He said, “Your majesty, please, please, please. I know you love Samson.” The king said, “Don’t you say my horse’s name.” “I’ll tell you why I stole him, and if you would give me just one year to live — you can kill me then — I can do something amazing with Samson.” The king sits back down. The thief stands up, because he’s a con man. He’s halfway there. “I could teach your horse to talk in one year.” The king’s chewing his lip, because he doesn’t believe the guy, but he does love that horse. He wonders, does the horse love him? And all the other things he’s always wanted to ask Samson on his morning rides. He says, “You know what? This is a curious situation. I have the power to give you one year of life, and I’m going to give it to you, but I assure you that in one year, if that horse is not talking, your head’s going to go on the scaffold.” The thief said, “Absolutely, your highness.” “Take him to the stables.” The guards drag him off. As they walk out, one of the guards turns to the thief and says, “You’re an idiot.” “What?” “You can’t teach that horse to talk.” The thief looks at him and smiles and says, “Five minutes ago I was a dead man. I’m alive for another year. In a year, I could die, the king could die, the horse could die, or it could talk. A lot can change in a year.” Isn’t that a marvelous story?

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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