Decatur children’s author Carmen Agra Deedy spent the pandemic like most people: watching everything on Netflix, reading, doing jigsaw puzzles, and cooking.
Deedy spent an inordinate amount of time on Facebook, hosting a nightly virtual dinner in character as a down-home, bosomy waitress named Rita. She would tell a story, post a recipe and photo, and encourage others to do the same at “Rita’s Virtual Diner.”
“This went on every night for a year,” Deedy said incredulously. “It really took on its own life and became a real community. There were hundreds of people posting, and they went on to private messaging, creating a cookbook and making plans to meet up in real life.”
Deedy actually got COVID-19 before the virus got a toehold in Georgia, forcing her to cancel appearances to promote her last book, “Rita & Ralph’s Rotten Day.”
“The book came out from Scholastic in early 2020 just before the world shut down,” she said. “Six-hundred tickets had been reserved for the launch at Decatur First Baptist Church, which was being hosted by Little Shop of Stories. The church had sponsored me as a refugee from Cuba, so it was going to be really special. It was also the first reading and signing I’d ever missed.”
Of course, all the schools, libraries, and bookstores closed soon after, so all her appearances went out the window. But ever the storyteller, Deedy cooked up a way to not only connect with kids but help publishing houses promote their books
“I was the reading champion for public libraries,” she recalled. “I couldn’t go to any schools or libraries, so I held ‘Picture Book Fridays’ on Zoom all summer during 2020 and read old and new children’s books.”
Luckily for fans of the multi-award-winning writer, Deedy also found time to work on three new books.
The first is “Wombat Said Come In,” her 15th book, about an Australian wombat who opens his borough to animals seeking shelter from a fire destroying the woodland.
Coming in October from Peachtree Publishing, “Wombat” features gorgeous illustrations from Newberry Award-winning artist Brian Lies. “I’ve had an author crush on him for years, so I was thrilled when they told me he was doing the illustrations,” Deedy said.
A voracious news reader and researcher – “I love researching more than writing” – the idea for “Wombat” came from a story she read about the devastating fires taking place in Australia.
“Once the fires began to die down, animals were observed emerging from wombat boroughs,” Deedy said. “Portly little wombats had allowed other animals to shelter in their labyrinthian boroughs. Being a refugee, I really understood the idea of someone giving you sanctuary in a time of trouble.”
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1960, Deedy and her family immigrated just after the revolution toppled the government and brought Fidel Castro to power. She was just three years old when she arrived in Decatur.
While early rave reviews of “Wombat Said Come In” have leaned into the environmental aspect of the story, Deedy said she was thinking of her own personal story as a refugee. “For me, the book is about people who open their doors in times of trouble.”
“Wombat” will launch during the Decatur Book Festival on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, with Deedy reading Saturday at 10 a.m. on the children’s stage. Find out more at decaturbookfestival.com.
Deedy will reach into her past once again next February with “Carina Felina,” a retelling of a Cuban folktale featuring illustrations by Henry Cole. “It’s a Shakespearean tragedy with a good ending,” Deedy laughed. “It’s about a parrot who falls in love with a cat.”
Then, in 2024, Peachtree Publishing will release “The Peanut Man,” which Deedy said is about her arrival in Georgia from Cuba. She’s also working with Georgia Power to create a book about solar energy for kids that will be out soon.
While she had to give up her nightly appearances in “Rita’s Virtual Diner,” one of the Facebook habits Deedy has kept up is the “Lost Word Society,” which is part of her author Facebook page (facebook.com/carmenagradeedy). Deedy posts an archaic word and encourages followers to think up a definition, etymology, story, or haiku for a “delectable” lost word to post in the comments.
As she prepares to read for kids from “Wombat Said Come In,” Deedy is hoping to impart empathy and compassion for others – the same kind shown to her when she arrived in America.
“To have the heart of a wombat is to believe that even when the world feels like it’s on fire, you can still do one good thing,” Deedy said.