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Ask the author: A conversation with Cece Bell

The cover image for El Deafo. The main character, Cece Bell, flies in the sky between clouds. She wears a cape, a white shirt, and blue shorts. Her eyes are closed and she smiles as she flies upwards.

We recently caught up with our friend, author and illustrator Cece Bell! She was kind enough to tell us a little about her creative process, what inspires her, El Deafo’s success, and what she loves the most about writing children’s books. Read on for more!

What inspired you to start writing children’s books?

I had wanted to make children’s books since college and graduate school, when a few kind professors suggested that my work would work well in kid lit. I was finding work as a freelance illustrator, but was having trouble getting work from publishing houses. I had read that it was easier to get your illustrations published if you also wrote the story that went with your illustrations, so as soon as I had a decent idea, I wrote it up and submitted it as a fully-illustrated “dummy.” That book became my very first book, Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood (reprinted later as Sock Monkey Takes a Bath), published by Candlewick Press in 2003.

Could you tell us a little bit about how your creative process works? For example, when you’re starting a new book, what comes first – the illustrations or the words?

I get most of my ideas while walking. When I get a good idea, I write it on a slip of paper and then I put the paper in a drawer for later. When I’m ready to start a new book, sometimes the idea I need is right there in my drawer!

For picture books and early readers, the words come first. I do a big “notebook dump” and get all my ideas out at once. Then I start organizing thoughts and looking for fun phrases and sort of shape the whole thing into something decent. Only after I get the writing in a good place do I start thinking about the illustrations. And then there’s a lot of back-and-forth between words and pictures, and many things change along the way, especially once an editor is on board and is helping with the process.

Graphic novels are a very different — they’re a lot more organic, there’s a lot more back-and-forth from the beginning. And they take a lot longer to make!

El Deafo is a wonderful book, and it teaches all of us how important it is to be inclusive. How has its success impacted you? How do you think it has impacted deaf children and families?

I wasn’t completely prepared for how much people would enjoy the book. It was astonishing. It was on the New York Times Bestsellers List and it won a Newbery Honor and an Eisner. Kids went nuts for it! It was the first time I had ever publicly acknowledged my deafness; putting it all out there for the world to read really helped me feel more comfortable about being deaf, and it helped me connect to many other deaf people in the best possible way. Most importantly, I think it helped a lot of kids feel seen, even kids who didn’t have hearing loss but felt different from their peers, in one way or another. Connecting with those kids has been the best part of that journey. (It also helped me get a foot into the television industry, as I co-wrote and co-executive produced a three-episode special for Apple TV+ that is based very closely on the book. Kids seeing themselves on TV is pretty empowering, too.)

What advice do you have for any kids who are interested in becoming authors or illustrators?

Try not to compare yourself with others! You are a unique individual with unique stories and a unique drawing style, and human beings are hungry for new stories and interesting art. My more specific advice for young writers is: write what you know, and then make it weird. And my more specific advice for young illustrators is: if you want to make a character funnier, add teeth!

What is your favorite thing about being an author and illustrator?

There are so many wonderful things about this career, especially knowing that I am making kids laugh and maybe even helping them enjoy reading. One of my very favorite things is getting to be friends with other authors and illustrators. They are the nicest and funniest people you will ever meet! And I’m really lucky to be married to my favorite author and illustrator, Tom Angleberger.