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Exclusive Q&A with Cece Bell

Cece Bell, author/illustrator of the graphic novel memoir "El Deafo," talks about her husband's early enthusiasm for her artwork, and how it led her to a career in children's books. ElDeafo

I wouldn't be an author if I hadn't been an illustrator first, and I wouldn't be an illustrator if I hadn't met Tom Angleberger first.

Tom and I were both students at the College of William and Mary in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I was a driven SuperStudent who majored in English and took copious notes and believed that an “A” was absolutely without a doubt the only acceptable grade one should ever receive. Tom was a laid-back PrettyGoodStudent who majored in Fine Arts and took no notes and believed “B”s were perfectly acceptable. I did allow myself one or two “non-academic” art classes, for fun. Tom saw my artwork and liked it. (He also liked me.) As I became increasingly frustrated with my major (reading books from The Canon and analyzing books from The Canon and writing papers about books in The Canon), Tom encouraged me to switch majors and join him in the Fine Arts department. When I finally did, I threw myself into it so completely that I became a SuperStudent of Art. I had so much fun making all that stuff, even though I had no idea what I was going to do with my life as an artist. Could I really make a living having that much fun?

Most of my artwork in college was bright, funny, and weird. I decided that illustration was the right direction for me. Tom and I got married (turned out I liked him, too!), and we headed off to Ohio immediately after our wedding so that I could study illustration at Kent State University. Tom worked in a factory and as a newspaper reporter to put me through school and pay all our bills. Seriously, if that ain't true love, I don't know what is.

I eventually became a freelance illustrator who really, really wanted to illustrate children's books. But no one would hire me. The only way to illustrate children's books, I realized, would be to write the books myself. So that's what I did. Luckily, it turned out that I like writing every bit as much as I like drawing. Using both words and pictures to tell funny stories is just about my favorite thing on Earth (other than Tom).

My first book was "Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood," published by Candlewick Press in 2003. I've done a lot of books since then, but my graphic novel memoir "El Deafo" is definitely the Big Boy of them all. It's about my childhood hearing loss and my subsequent feelings of isolation and loneliness. It's also about how I used my super-powerful hearing aid to impress my classmates. And of course there's a crush on a boy, a quest for a true friend, and plenty of hilarious misunderstandings. This book is the first book in which I acknowledge my deafness outright, and it was every bit of it cathartic.

Tom, as most of us know, went on to write and illustrate the Origami Yoda series, and lots of other great books, too. I will always remember, gratefully, that when I first met Tom, he didn't seem to mind one bit that I wore hearing aids. On the contrary, he thought I was cute! I will forever be indebted to him for encouraging me early on, and for helping me find my life's work.


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