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Decatur author Carmen Agra Deedy's tips to inspire a love of reading

Local author Carmen Agra Deedy has been writing for children for more than 20 years.

Many parents who grew up having Deedy's award-winning books read to them are now reading those books to their children.

Born in Cuba, Deedy came to America in 1964. She grew up in Decatur, which is still her home.

Here, she shares her perspective on reading, storytelling, playing outside and more.

Q: Why is reading important for young minds?

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A: Geography, history, science, mathematics. Choose any one of these disciplines, at random, then imagine trying to excel at that subject with poor reading skills.

Q: How can parents help their children learn to love to read in today's technology-saturated world?

A: Oh, I love this question! I do! Here's my answer:

Want to teach your children to build a "fortress of quietude" where they can escape the ever-present white noise of techno-babble?

Build them a reading fort. This does not require a trip to your building supply store; nor is it costly. A blanket or quilt over the kitchen table will do nicely, as will the pillows from the sofa.

The rule is: If you are actually reading in your fortress of quietude, you are left alone to do so for at least 30 minutes. Not solely for the use of the children in the household.

Q: How can parents help create their own family stories with their children that could potentially be told for generations?

A: All you need to get started are a few good prompts. For example, pose one of these questions to either an adult or child:

  • Do you remember a time when you got sick and missed an event you really wanted to attend —or avoid?
  • Do you remember the worst thing you ever did as a kid?
  • Did you ever have an unexpected encounter with an animal that you never forgot about?
  • Who was your absolute favorite relative or neighbor when you were a child, and why?

If these questions triggered any memories, then I highly recommend Donald Davis' excellent little book, "Telling Your Own Stories."

Q: What do you think is the key to creativity or imagination, and how can parents nurture this in their children?

A: I know this may seem counter-intuitive to today's young parents, many of whom like to be a part of their child's play time, but one of the best things a parent can do to encourage imagination (and still be a part of things) is to create a "starter set" of everyday items — and then walk away.

Some no-cost examples of starter sets for creative play:

  • Make your own house/rocket ship/lemonade stand

You will need a big empty box, a handful of markers, and an adult with scissors or a box-cutter to get it started.

  • Play dress-up

You will need an old suitcase filled with cast-off clothes and accessories (hats, ties, jewelry, belts, scarves) and a full-length mirror.

  • Make old-fashioned mud pies

You will need an old bucket or plastic bowl, old cupcake or tart molds, old spoons, water, a good patch of yard dirt and play clothes.

Remember, the key is to watch from afar. Offer a few suggestions, if you must, then skedaddle.

Q: How did you first become a storyteller?

A: First, I heard marvelous storytellers when I was a child (within both the Cuban and Southern communities).

Second, I played outside with my friends for hours every day. Imagination is a way to stave off boredom, and something as simple as a fallen tree trunk across a bridge became at once a pirate ship, a rocket, a bridge to another land. Stories were there, always, just waiting to be conjured. But first we had to be bored out of our ever-loving minds.

Q: How have your life experiences helped make you into the storyteller you are?

A: Storytelling begins as the art of story listening. It's through listening to stories that we learn timing, tone, pacing, dialogue, tension — many of the same traits one must learn to write effectively, as well.

I listened. A lot.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child, and why?

A: "Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White, because it was the story of that ingenious spider and her porcine friend, Wilbur, that ignited a lifelong love of reading.

Q: Since you were born in Cuba and came to America as a child, what advice do you have for immigrant children about holding on to their heritage while finding a new home in America?

A: Learn the stories of your homeland and never forget them.

Q: What is the most important message you have for children and their parents?

A: Read with your children. I remember reading to my girls every day. It was a sacred time, when the world stood still. And when they grew up, it was gone forever. So, there you go. Don't miss it.

Q: When will your next book be published?

A: "The Brave Little Rooster," Scholastic Press (February 2017)

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