“Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day,” by Atlanta author Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrations by Pete Oswald. Courtesy.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

New children’s book teaches kids how to say, ‘I’m sorry’

Some say there’s an art to a non-apology apology, that it usually involves the word, “if.”

I’m sorry if you were offended.

I’m sorry if you feel that way. 

I regret it if my words were taken out of context.

And there’s the vaguely passive-aggressive, and wildly popular variant, sorry, not sorry.

They seem ubiquitous these days, tumbling from the lips of politicians, embroiled corporate executives and celebrities, a never-ending stream of carefully crafted, legally vetted, dodging of responsibility. At least that’s the way children’s book author Carmen Agra Deedy sees it.

“You know, there are are a million ways to not say ‘I’m sorry’ nowadays,” Deedy said last week from her metro Atlanta home. “It’s ridiculous.”

Which is why Deedy, the New York Times best-selling author of “14 Cows for America,” and Emmy award-winning storyteller, decided to explore that idea in her latest book, “Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day,” released March 3 by Scholastic Press. While Deedy has spent her career writing books for older children, “Rita & Ralph” is her first picture book for pre-school and kindergartners. Learning how to say you’re sorry, and truly meaning it, is a lesson that can’t be taught too early. Yet it’s a moral skill that seems to become more and more slippery as we age, she said.

Children’s book author Carmen Agra Deedy. Photo: Irene Young
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

From her TED talks to NPR commentaries on All Things Considered, Deedy has told the story of what it was like growing up in a family of Cuban refugees who settled in Decatur, after fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro. It was in that small Cuban refugee community in Decatur that Deedy learned the art of storytelling, beginning when she was three years old, by listening to adults tell stories of the island. Reading was difficult for her because her dyslexia went undiagnosed until she was an adult. As a child that difficulty, along with her accented speech, made her the target of bullies. But her love of story did not wane. With persistence, she found refuge in books and later, as a young mother in her early 20s, she began writing for kids like her two daughters.

But she never forgot about the bullies who did not apologize. She still remembers them, even now, at 60 years old.

“I physically got beaten up all the time,” Deedy said, her voice breaking at the thought of it. “They were privileged kids, and the teacher gave tacit permission for me to be bullied.”

The characters in the new book are not archenemies. They aren’t even frenemies. They are best friends, but during a game of Stick and Stones, things go awry. The remainder of the book, illustrated by Pete Oswald, explores the roots of a true, heartfelt apology: humility, self-reflection and the maturity to admit you’re wrong.

Children’s book author Carmen Agra Deedy tells a story recently to students at Stratford Academy in Macon. (Photo courtesy of Stratford Academy)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Deedy visits schools across the country half of the year. She said that during the past two to five years, teachers have told her they’ve seen an uptick in physical fights between kids who don’t seem to have good, face-to-face conflict resolution skills. The observations are anecdotal, but Deedy said teachers have told her they suspect the deficit is linked to increased screen time with devices and less person-to-person interaction.

“I’m not a catastrophist,” Deedy said. “But our children are starved for human interaction. We are still carbon-based life forms. AI is not going away, but we need to check it.”

The way Deedy tells a story in front of a room full of children, but also adults, prompted the Smithsonian to name her to its Library Advisory Board in January.

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“Not only is Carmen a consummate storyteller and author, but she has taken her message of creativity and personal narrative into classrooms and public libraries across the country,” said Susan Battley, chair of the Smithsonian Library Advisory Board in an email. “Her stories spark imagination and possibility in young minds, and encourage children’s learning and empowerment.”

In the end, Deedy’s characters learn that a true apology, one that is not couched with hedge words or quips, is also a form of empowerment rather than diminishment.

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