Transcript from a video interview with Cece Bell

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Cece Bells. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

A long, curvy path to author/illustrator

Okay. Well, I never really thought about the writing stuff that much. It was always drawing and illustrating. That was what I really enjoyed doing, but I never really thought about it as a career. It was just something that I did in all of my free time. And so I was a real academic kid. I wanted to make straight A’s. I made straight A’s. And art was just sort of a break from that.

So I don’t really think I started to see it as a career until I went to college, and I met my husband there. He wasn’t my husband then, but, you know, when we met, he was an art major. And that has been — of course it’s Tom Angleberger, also a writer. And but he was an art major, and I was an English major. And I was a miserable English major. And he was a very happy art major.

And so he sort of convinced me to join him over in the art department maybe because he just wanted to spend more time with me, but I ended up having a great time. And I sort of started to realize that I wanted a career as an artist, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. So I actually was kind of tiptoeing around children’s books, but I really was just interested in illustrating for whoever would hire me.

And so for a long time I worked as a freelance illustrator. And I started to send illustrations out to publishers, kind of hoping that I could illustrate other people’s work, and nobody would hire me for a job because, you know, I’m a good illustrator, but I’m not the greatest illustrator you’ve ever seen by a long shot. So, that was kind of disheartening, but then I read in a book somewhere that said you are more likely to be published if you both write and illustrate picture books.

So I thought okay, and that was in the back of my mind. And eventually I did get that big idea, my first big idea for a good picture book, which ended up being my first book, Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood. And that was what got me into writing. It was almost more of a, you know, a necessity. If I’m going to be in this world, then I’m going to have to do both.

And it turns out that I loved the writing. And for years I think I liked making the pictures better, but now it feels like maybe I like the writing part better. All of it is fun, and I don’t think I could be successful without the pictures. I need the pictures as a writer because

I sort of see the story that way, but it was sort of a long curvy path in some ways to get to that point.

A conversation between you and the paper

Kid me was, you know, like I said, very into school and academic and, you know, anxious about everything, and the drawing was a release from that. And one of the things that made me anxious was simple communication simply because it’s so difficult for me. And lip reading, which is how I do communicate, takes up a lot of brain power, and it’s exhausting at the end of the day.

And drawing is something that’s just between you and the paper, and everything else gets blocked out. So that was probably why I was doing so much of it. As far as storytelling or storytellers in the family, I’d have to say my mom and then her mother, my grandmother, were both just, oh my gosh, foul, foul storytellers. I mean they just, you know, very much into the potty humor and all these — they like to play with language, and they would come up with nicknames and funny rhymes and funny — I mean it was always funny.

So there weren’t any real — I mean they weren’t like big stories of substance or anything. It was just all goofy, and that’s very much a part of the work I do now I think.

Imagining the story

But I think always my pictures were trying to accomplish something. I wasn’t just drawing a flower. I wanted that flower to be part of a scene that was maybe telling a story just in the picture. It wasn’t just a flower; maybe it was a flower that was walking through the city to buy a hotdog. You know, it had to be — there had to be — it had to be more interesting than just a flower. So that was a big — a big part of it.

And I was also — I wasn’t reading all that much. I really wasn’t. I wish I could say that I was the best, biggest reader ever, but the books I was most interested in were books by Ed Emberley, which those were books that were these kind of like step-by-step guides of how to draw. They’re sort of almost cartooning in a way, but he teaches you how to simplify the things you see.

It’s not — you don’t have to draw a horse realistically. He says look at this horse. It’s just rectangles. It’s, you know, a rectangle this way and then skinny rectangles for legs and maybe there’s a triangle in there and you’ve got a horse. And I would check those books out every Friday from the school library, work through them all weekend, bring them back on Monday. And for several years that was my thing.

And so that’s a little bit of the kinds of stuff I was doing. Oh, and I was watching a lot of TV, which I’m not going to dismiss TV all the way because for me in the years before closed captioning I was still watching a lot of TV, but I understood none of it except for what I could see on the screen. And so I filled in a lot of blanks for myself.

You know, I would just make up what was going on, and I think that actually enhanced my storytelling abilities. It wasn’t lazy watching; it was watching and trying to figure it out and then coming up with my own possibilities for what was happening. For example, M*A*S*H when they wear their surgical mask, no idea what they’re saying. So I’m like well, what could they possibly be doing down there?

And, you know, you just start making things up, and maybe your story was even better than the M*A*S*H writers. I doubt it, but — so there was a lot of TV thrown in there too, lots of TV.

Peer support

There was almost — and I don’t mean this in a negative way at all. There was probably almost no encouragement, but it was more like that was how our parents were in the seventies. They were busy. They were doing their own things, and we were left to our own devices. And so it was just a very private thing that I did. I had friends. My peers were much more excited about what I was drawing than my parents or — I mean my parents would say oh, that’s nice, that’s lovely, you know.

I mean my mother kept none of my drawings except for maybe five. I mean so it really wasn’t that big of a deal. It was just something. But my friends got excited about it, and it was something that I could do better than they could, and I needed that. I needed — you know, I couldn’t hear like they could, but I could draw better than they could.

And so I mean that was a real validation for me that they responded positively to it. So I think that acceptance was more important than — I wasn’t trying to get any checks from my parents or even from teachers. That didn’t matter, but it did matter that my friends thought it was cool that I could draw.

Drawing for life

Doing well in school was not about figuring out a career or figuring out my path in life. Doing well in school was just a short-term thing of I’m going to be better than you. Once again, like the drawing, it was a way I wanted people to see me as maybe the smartest kid in school and not that deaf girl that is in class with me. And so I wasn’t at all thinking about what am I going to do when I grow up.

I get to college, still had no idea. And so I really have no idea what I would be doing. I would — I can’t even see myself as a teacher because I get so flustered so easily. Maybe a fry cook. I mean I like to cook, something like that. But I really — this is the only possible outcome for me, and I think I would continue to pursue it relentlessly if I, you know, if I was a fry cook, I would be a fry cook who goes home at night and draws and tries to get into children’s books. I would have never given up on that.

The idea drawer

Generally, I get most of my ideas when I’m taking walks, and I sort through a lot of — usually my emotional anxiety and stuff. I sort through all that and then I start thinking about books and I start thinking about ideas and stuff. And occasionally I’ll get a good idea, and when I get back home, I put it on a piece of paper so that I don’t forget it because you do forget good ideas all the time.

You think this is the greatest idea ever. How could I possibly forget this? And then a day later it’s gone. So I write them down and I put them in a drawer. And so when I’m having these periods of not feeling very creative, but I’m ready to start a new project, I just open up that drawer and I start shoving stuff together. Maybe three ideas get smooshed together.

For example, in my book Bee-Wigged I had two slips of paper. One slip of paper said giant bee trying to make friends. Another slip of paper said wig or wiglet. I knew I wanted to [unint.] — I wanted to do a book about wigs or small wigs. I put those two together and ta-da. So, that’s kind of how I get started. Once I’ve got the idea, it’s all about getting the story perfect first.

Story first

I don’t think about the pictures at all. I don’t think about the medium. I don’t think about anything but the story because I really believe that if you have two books and one book has a great story but the pictures are so-so and there’s another book that has beautiful pictures but the story isn’t very good, the book that has the better story and the so-so pictures is better always.

That’s how I feel. The better story always wins. I’ve got a bunch of books at home that I actually buy or have kept to prove that, you know. This story is so good, and these pictures help, but it’s not about the pictures for me. The story is more important. So I spend a lot of time messing with the story. When I finally get that in a place that I like, then I start just with the basic storyboard, all the pictures or all the pages on one piece of paper and you kind of go back and forth between text and pictures and try to figure out what can I take out of the words.

And I like taking out as many words as I can and letting the pictures do it. So there’s a lot of back and forth and then you just keep — the pictures get bigger and bigger and bigger. You add more details as you go and fine-tune it. That’s basically what happens. But when I write a story, I never think oh, this story has too many cars in it, and I don’t like to draw cars so I’m not going to do it.

I don’t think about that. I just hope that I can draw cars by the time I get around to illustrating it. So that’s kind of how I operate. The story first always.

Face reading

There is so much great illustration out there. But the one thing I feel like I really have a good grasp on is facial expression, and I really think that is because of all the years that I have been lip reading.

I have been lip reading for 40 of my 45 years on this planet, and that’s a long time. And lip reading doesn’t just mean I’m looking at the person’s mouth. Lip reading means I’m looking at everything that’s going on in their face. And I need more clues than just lips. I need to know are they angry, are they happy, are they furious, are they maybe just a little bit mad, are they annoyed but really they kind of like being annoyed.

I mean there’s all these levels of stuff that you need to take in account. So I think all that is in my brain I have this encyclopedia of expressions, and I don’t even need to look at something. I just draw it, and sometimes, you know, I mess around with it and keep working and working until it looks right, but I really think that’s one thing that I do well and with very little — with very few lines.

You know, I don’t — I like simple lines, direct lines. And so, you know, a happy face is basically two dots and a mouth, but then if you just add a few extra lines, the eyebrows, some other things, you have so many different emotions that you can show. So I think that’s probably what I’ve got in my personal toolbox that — sometimes I do need to look at photos or just reference of people’s faces a little bit. But most of the time, you know, I know what mad looks like. I know what annoyed looks like. So that’s one way I think I’m a strong illustrator that way.

Creating a graphic novel

I think in a lot of ways a picture book is a graphic novel. It’s just maybe three pages from a graphic novel and with each spread or each page being a panel. It very much works in the same way except you have the page turn, which is kind of a dramatic moment, you know. I mean you can use that. With graphic novels you have panels and you can see a lot of them before you turn the page.

But the work is obviously a lot more involved with a graphic novel because it just takes forever, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for a long time. With a picture book you feel like oh, 32 spreads. Check. With a graphic novel, it’s just endless and having to draw the same character over and over and over and over again, it’s relentless and very tricky.

But a lot of the process was the same for me. But I found that I did a lot more sort of winging it with the graphic novel, which was really fun for me. With a picture book, you have to be so — well, you don’t have to be, but, you know, you have a limited number of words that you’re going to use, and it almost needs to be like maybe not a work of art but just this perfectly contained thing.

The graphic novel, it felt like you could just sort of put stuff in there on the fly and it would work and so you would leave it, and it was much more organic way — much less planning almost. You could let things sort of flow, at least I could. And a lot more — a lot more back and forth between the words and the pictures and just letting them sort of become what they were supposed to become.

It was fascinating to me how different it was, and I have to say in a lot of ways I like working in the graphic novel format better except for the amount of time that it took, except for that. So for me, I almost feel like a project that I would really enjoy would be that sort of hybrid picture book graphic novel for younger kids. I totally want to try that out because I think it would — it just brings out a different kind of storytelling for me, maybe even a better form for me.

El Deafo and the graphic novel format

So, there were a bunch of reasons for why the graphic novel format was just perfect for El Deafo. One of the less big reasons was the book is a superhero story. I mean it’s about me using this giant hearing aid to hear my teachers wherever they were in the entire school. I mean that’s a super power. So, comics have always been one of the main formats for superhero stories. So that just made sense.

But the main reason, the bigger reason was the speech balloons that are such a big part of graphic novels. So the speech balloons I was able to use to sort of show the experience of being deaf. In the very beginning of the story I actually do have hearing, and when I was about four and a half I got really sick and was in the hospital for a couple weeks and lost my hearing during that time in the hospital.

So in the book there are speech balloons that start out with text that is black, but it gradually fades away to gray and then to nothing. And so the reader sort of is wondering, just like I probably wondered as a kid, well, what’s going on? Suddenly I don’t understand anymore. That’s what the reader’s thinking, and that’s what I was thinking too probably.

Then later after it’s official that I’ve lost my hearing, a lot of the speech balloons are simply blank. And in that case the reader is also trying to be exactly — or was trying to do exactly what I was trying to do, which is figure out what was going on by looking around me for other clues, just like you’re looking around the panel trying to figure out what’s going on in the story. So, blank speech balloons when I couldn’t hear and then speech to me today and it’s very garbled.

I have to be able to see the person speak. If I can’t see them, then I have no idea what they’re saying. It’s sort of I can hear vowels but not consonants. And so the speech in those cases in certain panels where I’m not looking at the speaker, it’s all garbled. It’s nonsense and gibberish. And so once again kids reading the book are having to figure out what’s going on from the other clues in certain panels.

So it was just a perfect format and much more immediate. If I had tried to describe what I was hearing, I would have lost my readers, and they wouldn’t know what it felt like. But they’re right there in the moment, and they know — every time they know exactly what I’m hearing, what I’m not hearing. They know what I’m hearing just by reading those speech balloons and they are right there with me, and the experience becomes their experience, too, so it’s a great format for showing deafness I think.

Graphic novels and the struggling reader

I think for some readers, some kids really do have trouble. When they see all that text, their mind just closes. And I was kind of one of those kids. I mean I like to read, but I never loved to read. And I think I saw all that text. The closer together it was, the smaller it was, the less likely I wanted to read it. I love getting those large‑print books from the library that were for the older folks, you know. I love this, and I’m turning the page so quickly.

But there was like this sense of satisfaction for readers who maybe have a little bit of difficulty reading. Here are these pictures that help propel me through. It doesn’t take very long to get through a page. Suddenly you read a 220-page book, and you’ve never read a 220-page book in your life. It’s like this gateway to reading maybe things that are more difficult down the road, but I don’t think that that’s all they should be known as.

They are art on their own just like a prose book is art on its own. It is perfect for what it is, but it does help. it has this extra power of being super helpful for helping a lot of people read with more confidence I think.

Reading the pictures

I think they should be part of every single classroom, picture books and graphic novels. They exercise a different part of your brain. That whole thing that I was saying about maybe somebody needing them to help — needing the pictures to help read, but they’re actually — they’re translating all these pictures. That’s visual stuff that’s really hard, and that’s actually hard for some other kids that need to practice that.

So I think — I really feel like graphic novels especially have been embraced by just about everybody across the board. There might be a few people who think that’s not reading, but, you know, reading is reading. And with a picture book and graphic novels both, they’re bringing art into the lives of everybody. It doesn’t matter what age; everybody needs to be able to enjoy and appreciate pictures. And I’m all over it. I’m all over it. I mean I’m kind of yapping, but I would love to see high schools with picture books and on the book shelves in the classroom.

You know, some of the nonfiction ones too. I don’t have — I don’t remember things very well, but — like about history because often it’s presented and it doesn’t have this human component to it, but the picture book versions of like the life of Rosa Parks, I’ll read that, and I’ll look at the pictures, and I’ll remember so much more about her because I looked at that book than if I had just looked her up in the encyclopedia and read a little passage. So they need to be everywhere. Everywhere.

Rabbit and Robot

Rabbit and Robot are the stars of I guess you would call them early reader books or just one early reader book so far. And they are very good friends, and Rabbit is definitely based on me. Rabbit is this very anxiety-prone list maker, overreacts a lot when things on his list don’t go exactly the way he wants them to go.

And so he tends to overreact to things when they don’t go right. His best friend is Robot. And Robot is just this mellow cool breeze, cool breeze Robot, and he just kind of helps Rabbit see things differently and look at things more positively. And he just sort of kind of mellows things out. And so Rabbit is definitely me, and Robot is more the character that I aspire to be and probably never will be, but that’s the goal.

It’s just mellower — this person who’s always looking at positive things. And I am a positive person, but I get wrapped up in these lists, you know. I must get up at five in the morning, and I must achieve all these things on my list. And you don’t have to. You shouldn’t have to. But so that’s kind of where they — what Rabbit and Robot are.

So the first book was basically Rabbit invited Robot to his house for a sleepover, and he had a list of things that they were going to do at this sleepover, and this is the order that we’re doing them. And each thing on the list something goes wrong. But Robot is able to roll with it in a way that Rabbit isn’t, and Robot at the end of the book is able to show Rabbit that they did do all the things on the list, just differently, and it was all okay because it was fun. So that’s that book.

Friendship

Friendship. Yeah. Just about every book that I’ve done except for I Yam a Donkey I think is about friendship. And friendship is a funny thing for me. I don’t — probably like a lot of people I have a few very close friends that I keep close. And for me some of — one of the things that I look for in a friend is can I understand him or her.

I mean that sounds awful, but, you know, I tend to just oh, here comes Buddy. Buddy’s got a beard. Gotta go, Buddy. So, you know, we cannot be friends. That’s not true. But friendships are just fraught with complexities, and I think I’ve spent a lot of my time just thinking about, you know, what — I feel like — let me think about this. I feel like I’m often a bad friend, and I think about that a lot.

And that kind of makes it into my work. The Sock Monkey books, for example, Sock Monkey is kind of vain and he kind of puts himself first and often will — but then in the end he just needs all this help. That’s me again. You know, I think — I hope I’m not too vain, but sometimes I do think without meaning to I’ll put myself and my own needs first and then I’ll go home and I’ll think oh, why did I say that to Mary? I should have been a good friend.

You know, it’s just agonizing over these things. And that definitely makes it in. So that’s some ways that I’m not the greatest friend in the world, but I try very hard to be a generous person. I think maybe one of the ways that I’m a good friend is I like to make things for people, and it’s very important for me to make things for people. And in fact, I get more pleasure out of giving one individual person a gift than sometimes I do with having books out there.

A place to write and draw

I work in a building that is actually one of those Home Depot barns that I purchased with my own money and then I hired somebody to help me finish it on the inside. So it does not have running water or a bathroom, but it does have electricity and heat. And so it’s just about maybe 10 steps away from the house, but it is separate from the house. It is not connected. And so I just — if I need water to paint or something,

I just bring a jug of water over from the house.

If I need to go to the bathroom, I take 10 steps to go back home. But I need that separate space. I need a sensation of I am going to work. And I’m going to shut this door and then I will no longer think about laundry or dishes or just how disgustingly filthy my house is. And on that note, the studio is impeccable. It’s spotless. Every night when I’m done working, I put everything away and I just clean up a little bit so that the next morning I’m not wasting all that creative energy cleaning up from the day before.

I just get started. And my typical day is wake up usually around 4:30 or 5 in the morning. Don’t get dressed. Put my shoes on. Walk in the dark. Unlock the studio. Get to work. And I’ll work usually about two hours and then I come back home and I help get the kids ready for school and do some other stuff and then I go back to it and I’ll work some more.

So the morning is my time. Nothing has happened yet. Nothing. I have an empty brain and I can just start. And it’s really nice being able to have my own space that is clean, much cleaner than the house and I just put everything else away. A bubble of perfection that’s mine, all mine. And no boys allowed. Very few people are allowed in there. Very few. Yeah.

Collaborating with Tom Angleberger

So, my husband is Tom Angleberger, and he is also an author, and he’s an illustrator too. And he’s probably most familiar to readers as the author of the Origami Yoda series. So we normally do work separately, but every now and then we do projects together such as Crankee Doodle, which is a picture book about Yankee Doodle in a very bad mood, and it’s actually — if you read it carefully, it’s actually the story of our marriage.

One of us is cranky and one of us is the pony. And then we’re working on this series of books right now called The Inspector Flytrap series in which he did the writing and I’ve done the illustration. And I sort of do some editing for him because as an illustrator, sometimes you’ll illustrate somebody’s book, and you think oh, I wish I could tell the writer that it would sound so much better if they would just — and you’re not supposed to do that. But with Tom I can make that suggestion because he’s part of — he’s right there and he’s part of it and sort of expects that from me a little bit.

A Geisel and a Newbery

The first ALA award that I got was the Geisel honor for Rabbit and Robot, and that was such a crazy experience because I have to admit that I was not paying much attention to any of the awards except for Caldecott. I was just fixated on Caldecott. That’s the one for me. That’s the one I want. Yeah. Caldecott. But so I had never even heard of the Geisel Award.

So when they called my house very, very late at night one night to tell me I had won this award, well, my mother thankfully happened to be at my house and Tom was on the road. My mom answers the question — or I mean I’m sorry. My mom answers the phone and they have this conversation with her about this award, and she’s just like Geisel, Goosel [ph.] G—, what, huh?

You know, and I had no idea what she was talking about. And she gets off the phone, no idea what just happened. But then later I got a text message that said the Geisel Award, but I still didn’t quite realize what it was. So I looked it up online. I’m like oh, that’s nice. and I go to bed and then at two in the morning I just wake up like oh, this was a really big deal. Oh, man. And then I got excited.

But that was just bizarre. And then later El Deafo got not the Caldecott but a Newbery honor, and that was really exciting because I was totally not expecting that either because no graphic novel had ever achieved that. So everybody said oh, it should, but it won’t. Oh, it’s really good, but it’s not going to go there.

So this committee really — the Newbery committee really took a leap here, and that was just amazing, an amazing experience. And what it’s done to me is it has filled my email inbox up to massive amounts, just more people wanting to have conversations and hoping that I might come visit their schools and do presentations and stuff, to which I would love to say yes to all of them, but that’s just not — there’s not enough time.

And so that’s been the main change, but I was telling someone earlier today it feels like all of that happened to somebody else, that it’s just a separate — even the book El Deafo now feels like it’s somebody — it all happened to somebody else. It’s my book, but you can sort of be jealous of a book, sort of like well, what if I never write a book that’s as well-received as this one? And that might very well happen.

And you kind of — you start to see it as its own entity, and that’s sort of how it felt with the medals too, that it’s just this ethereal thing that really did happen to somebody else. But a total honor. I mean if anybody had said to me oh, you’ll be recognized for your writing, I would have just laughed in their face, you know. Caldecott. So, that was kind of neat that I had come to this as an illustrator but have come out of it as almost more recognized as a writer. That’s kind of neat.

I love Beverly Cleary

I love Beverly Cleary.

Oh, I’m going to cry. Woo. Dear Beverly Cleary, your books were the only books that I could read. Nothing else interested me as much as your books, and I am the personification of Beezus. If there was ever a Beezus, it’s me. You are just the greatest writer for children of all time in my opinion, and thank goodness for your books because I don’t think I would have read any books at all if it weren’t for your amazing books. I love Beverly Cleary. Yeah. I love her.

"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo