It’s always cool to meet other kid lit authors in your state, but that’s especially true when you get to hang with the fabulous CeCe Bell. This weekend, she heads out to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC to represent Virginia in the Hall of States – and to wow audiences with the sweet and funny personality that shines through in all her work. CeCe was gracious enough to answer some questions for us. So, here she is – our “closer” for the 2015 GOS author interview series, CeCe Bell.
1. Congratulations on winning the Newbery Honor for El Deafo. Can I ask where you were when you heard the news about winning the award? What was that moment like for you?
I was in Chicago at ALA Midwinter! Tom and I were supposed to go home the day before the announcements were made, but the snow was pouring down and our flight was delayed. So we stayed another night in the hotel. The phone rang early in the morning, and Tom spoke to the person on the other end without ever changing his expression. Tom knew before I knew, but didn’t say anything. Soon after Tom hung up the phone, Randall Enos (the Newbery committee chair) began texting me and telling me that El Deafo had been selected as a Newbery Honor book. You know that expression, I just about died? Well, I just about died. It was a surreal moment. Surrounded by snow, finding out that other people thought my writing was Newbery-worthy. I couldn’t believe it then, and I still can’t believe it now. I went into this business because I love to draw. I would never, ever have predicted this one. It’s humbling and amazing and I don’t think I’ll ever stop pinching myself.
2. The storyline in El Deafo is autobiographical, except of course that you are not a rabbit as far as I can tell. Do you often revisit childhood moments in your work? Why did you decide to revisit this particular experience of your growing up?
I think I do revisit childhood moments in all my books, but often without really realizing that I’m doing so. That old adage, write what you know—I think most writers are writing what they know without really knowing that they’re writing what they know. (Does that make a lick of sense?) All that childhood stuff just creeps on in. I didn’t realize that my picture book Bee-Wigged is totally autobiographical until it was completed, for example. And Betsy Bird observed that Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover could easily be about someone needing technology (in this case, a robot; in real life, a hearing aid) to help them navigate the tricky stuff in life. Anyway…I revisited my particular experiences with deafness because I was ready, because I knew the material was funny, and because I wanted to give hearing folks a “manual” as to how to deal with people like me—deaf people who use hearing aids to hear, or any deaf person, really. I wish I could say I was thinking about helping other deaf people at the time, but it really came out of my own personal and somewhat selfish need to own up to being deaf, to take pride in it, and to educate the hearing world a bit (in the hopes that by doing so, folks would stop over-enunciating at me!). The amazing thing for me is that El Deafo has ended up helping a lot of other deaf people, and even people who for whatever reason have felt isolated due to being “different” in some way. What an unexpected treat—and one that may very well be even better than the Newbery honor.
3. What do you love about writing a story as a graphic novel? And, on the other hand, what is hard or limiting about the form?
Graphic novels are such a fun way to tell a story. I love how you can make what might seem like a really small, inconsequential moment feel really big, just by how you draw that moment. Maybe that moment is in a really big panel. Or maybe it takes up an entire page. You’re filming your own movie. I also love speech balloons. They are so versatile, and in fact, speech balloons were the reason I chose to write the book as a graphic novel—speech balloons allowed me to show what I was hearing (or not hearing) at all times. I’d say that what’s hard about graphic novels is simply the making of them. The necessity of drawing the same character over and over and over again, the same locales over and over and over again. But then you get really, really good at drawing your characters and locales! It’s time-consuming, but when you get to the end of that tunnel, so rewarding.
4. I’ve heard you say that this is a book about compassion, which I like to think of as a characteristic of truly strong girls. Can you elaborate a little bit on that idea?
Did I say that? Huh! Yeah, it is a book about compassion. A reminder to everyone (myself included) that everyone, no matter what they’ve got going on—everyone has the same hopes, dreams, fears, feelings. My favorite people are the ones who, when they first meet me (and don’t know about my hearing), talk to me like they would talk to anyone. And then, when they find out that I do have trouble hearing, they don’t start over-enunciating or shouting or making a big deal about it. They just say, oh that’s cool, and keep on talking. That ‘s what everyone should be doing with everyone else, you know?
5. Everyone one loves a book that can make you laugh one moment and pull you into deep thought the next. How do you handle humor in your work? Are you thinking of the laughs or are you consciously thinking of how the humor works against the harder thinking you want the readers to do?
I don’t really think too hard about being funny in my books at all. It just kind of comes. I think almost every moment in life has its funny counterpoint (well, I’m sure there are some experiences that don’t have anything funny at all about them, but we won’t think too hard about those right now or else we’ll all be crying in our giant pillows tonight). When I start looking at the itty bitty details of a story that’s happened to me, I can often find these weird and surprising bits of humor.
6. Were there any surprises for you with regard to how the novel was received – good and bad?
No real bad surprises, knock wood! But I was not prepared for the intensity of the love shown for this book. Not prepared at all. And I was not prepared to meet so many wonderful deaf kids and adults who immediately felt like instant friends. Until this book came out, I had almost no experiences with other deaf people. Now I have a ton of deaf friends and it’s so much fun to trade stories and share laughs. It feels a little bit like a Superfriends club!
I loved all the Beverly Cleary books. Judy Blume. The Secret Garden. Caddie Woodlawn. Strong girls in everyday situations. I kept my nose in a lot of picture books, too, and never grew out of looking at those. (No one should). My favorite book of all is a picture book called Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen. SO good. Ed Emberley taught me to draw with his series of drawing books. I was obsessed with A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and with The Berenstain Bears in Bears in the Night. So good. Today I love to read graphic novels and am a HUGE fan of Raina Telgemeier’s books. I still love to read books about strong girls in everyday situations!
8. Finish this sentence: Strong girls… work hard and laugh often.
9. What are you working on next?
So many things, gracious. A sequel to Rabbit & Robot. I’m illustrating a series of books for Tom—the Inspector Flytrap series. I’m working on an entry for an anthology by funny women, and in January you can see my entry for the second Comics Squad, a collection of stories by graphic novelists. I’ve got a picture book coming out called Chuck and Woodchuck, and most recently, my picture book yuk yuk-fest, I Yam a Donkey came out in June. And El Deafo 2 is percolating around in my head! Busy times, indeed. But really really good times, too.