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Award-Winning Children’s Book Author and ILA General Session Speaker Carmen Agra Deedy on the Potent Power of Words

By Carmen Agra Deedy
 | Apr 05, 2017

CarmenAgraDeedy_w220There was a period in my life when words exhausted me; there are still days when I seek refuge in solitary walks, or cooking, or sketching, just to still the humming language center of my brain.

A strange thing for a writer to confess, I suppose.

And yet I love words. Adore words. But this was not always so.

Spanish is my first language. My parents were Cuban refugees who settled in Decatur, GA, in 1964. English first entered our home by way of a mysterious and unwieldy item of furniture. My sister and I watched entranced as our father, amid fierce grunts and mild curses, negotiated this Pandora’s box up the winding, narrow stairs and into our attic apartment. I, a skittish 5-year-old, watched from the relative safety of the doorway.

Our first television.

The massive console looked like it could hold my sister and me in its unseen bowels. Shiny rabbit ears protruded from its boxy head. The convex glass screen brought to mind an all-seeing eye. It alarmed me at first—but then with the flick of a knob and a muffled “click,” the creature came to life. In an instant, I was hypnotized.

Hercules became my favorite program. It was a cartoon version of the great mythological strong-man. I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course, but I loved watching his exploits. Then one day, my mother asked me to explain an episode; my English was sketchy, hers almost non-existent. I glanced toward the TV, then back to her. I paused, dumbstruck. In a moment of such clarity that I remember it still, I realized that early on, I had stopped trying to extract meaning from the strange sounds the characters made when they spoke; instead, I relied on what I saw in order to work out the story.

So I lied to her. I told my mother what I thought the story was about and she, satisfied, left me alone. I know now that this was the birth of my first coping strategy as an auditory dyslexic. It would be 28 years before I was even partially diagnosed, but I would nonetheless one day learn that for most people, words were transmitted in the audio version of HD—but the words my brain processed were more like the hazy images from our old Zenith television.

Words in my native language lacked crispness as well, but I had learned to compensate. If a word slipped by too quickly, or the frequency of a voice made it hard to understand, I guessed at the meaning by filling in the missing pieces.

I never wondered why I understood some people more clearly than others, why some words were more distinct—no more than I wondered what a revolution was, nor how it had served to bring me to Decatur and, all too soon, to Oakhurst Elementary School.

It was 1966 when I joined the phalanx of scrubbed and mostly eager first graders that filed into Miss Burns’s classroom. She spoke Southern-accented English, a dialect I have come to deeply love but that was incomprehensible to me that day. Where was the English of Hercules? The words our teacher spoke were melodic and pleasing, but she might as well have been reading the phone book. And then she handed out little books with soft watercolor images of children and animals. Dick and Jane (Penguin) was about to be my undoing.

To read Carmen Agra Deedy’s full article, view the open access March/April issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

Carmen Agra Deedy, the author of 11 books for children, including The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! (Scholastic), will be an Opening General Session speaker at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits on Saturday, July 15. In addition, she will be included in the Primary-Level Putting Books to Work workshop later that day.

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