Genre Jumper Cece Bell

Author/illustrator Cece Bell delves into graphic novels for the first time with the days-from-being-published El Deafo. The story, about her hearing loss from meningitis, her gain of a new superpower and her search for a true friend, is my personal pick for a Newbery/ Caldecott/Schneider Family triple crown. Cece’s also written and illustrated picture books and an easy reader. And (insert Troy McClure voice here) you may know her from the cover art for one of her husband’s Origami Yoda books or the logo she designed for the Eastmont Tomato Festival in Elliston, Va. Rumor has it that she’s working on a short for the next Comic Squad, along with more picture books, and illustrations for a new series with the aforementioned husband. She is at once wise and pee-in-your-pants funny, and I am thrilled to have her here to talk about genre jumping and the painstaking work she did on El Deafo. I am glad she’s finished for two reasons: First, because readers can now check out this glorious book, and second because she has finally unlocked the door of her studio and I get to SEE her again!

Cece Bell

Me: Which came first, chicken or egg, PB, Easy Reader or Graphic Novel?
Cece: Egg came first. Picture book lacking eggs of any sort came next. That PB was Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood, from Candlewick Press, ELEVEN years ago. Funny thing: when I submitted this book to CP, it was called Sock Monkey Takes a Bath. And now that CP is reprinting it (along with the other two books in the series), guess what? They’re changing the name from SM GOES TO HOLLYWOOD to SOCK MONKEY TAKES A BATH. It’s true!
Me: What was the first thing you published, art or writing wise? And yes I do mean EVER:
Cece: I think that would have to be a couple of drawings in my high school literary magazine—The Delphi of Salem High School in Salem, VA—circa 1987. One was a stipple portrait of a mother horse with her foal. That’s right. Stipple. And horses? I had no real interest in them but our not-very-creative art teacher wanted us always to work from photos and this was the photo I ended up with. I must’ve been overwhelmed with school in general if a photo of a horse mother with her foal was the best I could do. The other entry to the lit mag was a pencil drawing of Woody Allen. I liked him a lot then, especially his book Without Feathers. Anyway, what’s cool is that last year I was the featured “local artist/writer who grew up and done good” in that very same literary magazine. A couple of aspiring writers came over and examined the filth in which I live and interviewed me and wrote some nice things about me. Their giggles and their youth reminded me that time never stops. The whole thing was kinda surreal. But neat!
Me: When did you publish something in a different form?
Cece: If you mean non-book, then that’d probably be some of the packaging/illustrations I did for my first and only real job, a manufacturer of products for exotic pets, like frogs and lizards and fish and birds. (This was back in the mid-nineties.) I had to quit that job for several reasons, chief amongst them the fact that some of these products (on which I was working so hard to make beautiful) were killing frogs. Seriously. And my boss may have been the Devil Incarnate. Or at least the Devil’s Crafty Cousin.
Me: And as long as I’m talking about different forms, maybe I should have you mention the different types of drawing/painting you do as well?
Cece: I like to mix it up. Some computer stuff. Some pencil stuff scanned in and then colored in Photoshop. Some acrylic paint with stencils. I’d like to be a better watercolorist, but that ain’t ever gonna happen. I recently finished a book in which I used china markers and acrylics on vellum, in a vain attempt to channel the Provensens, who used oil on vellum for some of my favorite books by them (at least I read that somewhere). FAT CHANCE. I’m never gonna be Cece Provensen. Not even Cece Prov.
Me: You do both writing and illustration, so between those two areas, which comes first? Or do they just kind of ooze all over each other?
Cece: Very little oozing at first. Totally writing first. And I work and work and work to get the writing just right before I even start the drawings. I don’t even think about whether or not I can actually confidently draw the stuff I’ve written, which can really blow up in my face from time to time. Of course, when I go to illustrate the writing, what I thought was perfect writing turns out to be extraordinarily imperfect, and that’s when the oozing begins. But I do love that process, of figuring out if a picture could tell the story better than the words, and then just editing the words right outta there.
Me: How easy do you find it to switch back and forth between writing for older kids and writing for younger ones?
Cece: Switching around with the writing is not too hard. It’s the drawing I have trouble with, because I always tend to draw “younger.” It was difficult making that transition from something like Jerry Bee and the kids in Bee-Wigged, to the rabbit-people from El Deafo. Aging up is something I don’t do well, both in drawing and in real life.
Me: Are there themes you tend to explore repeatedly in writing and illustrating for different age groups?
Cece: Just about everything I write seems to be about friendship. Making friends, placating them, losing them, finding them again. Arguing with them and then making up again. Another theme would be “be nice.” And another would be, how can I make this as funny as possible, but still have a little bit of sweetness to it? A PB coming soon, called I Yam a Donkey, however, has absolutely nothing to do with friendship—and zero sweetness. A first! That one is totally for the yuk yuks.
Me: El Deafo marks the oldest group you’ve written-illustrated for so far. How did that work for you? Would you do it again?
Cece: I think I might, especially since I keep thinking of other stories from that period in my life that I could easily fictionalize and make entertaining. But I can’t imagine doing another graphic novel again. It was excrutiating. I don’t know how other graphic novelists do more than one. Blood, sweat, tears, pus—you name it, it ALL came out of me while I was working on it. I think I’d like to try a more hybrid approach, like Tom’s books or like The Popularity PapersWimpy Kid books, that sort of thing.
Me: How would El Deafo have been different as a straight-up middle grade novel? Because I believe you’d contemplated that at one point.
Cece: I don’t think it would have been as successful. The speech balloons and the fact that you can put anything—or nothing—in them just totally, totally make sense with hearing loss. And I really do tell a better story when there are pictures to help me along. I don’t care much for my own descriptive writing, because it all sounds so forced and rarely rings true. I can make the drawings do a lot of that work. I think that’s why I love picture books so much…I can write very brief lines of text that sound pretty good, and let the drawing do everything else. I mean, how much briefer can you get than this: “Jerry Bee loved people.” What a line! Bring on the Pulitzer!

A page from the sampler for El Deafo, where the bubbles make all of the difference.

Me: Talk a little about your process.
Cece: Wake up early. Spend too much time on one picture. Work and rework a drawing while wishing I had paid more attention to the life drawing classes and less attention to being whimsical all the time. That’s the abbreviated version, for sure.
Me: Now that you’re a little bit away from it, does it seem as excruciating?
Cece: YES. But it was also a lot of fun from time to time, and I absolutely loved the graphic novel format as a means of storytelling. Loved it. But I just am not what you’d call an amazing artist, and I really struggle with drawing. It’s like…I am a storyteller first, and all my illustrations are simply a way to tell the story. NOT a way for the reader to say, WOW, that kid can DRAW. That’s reserved for all the illustrators who just rock it. You know who they are! I’d list them here but my fear of leaving someone out is greater than my need to write a list of all the great illustrators working today.
[Editor's note: I get what you're saying, but you rock it, too, Cece. You very clearly rock it.]
Me: Is there a genre you’d like to try that you haven’t tried yet? Or a type of medium?
Cece: I think I’m in a good place with the genres I’ve tried. I definitely don’t see YA in my future. I was never a good “young adult”—due to my hearing loss, I think I instantly became more an adult in a child’s body, and then later, as I got more comfortable with things, I switched to being a child in an adult’s body. (That sounds so lame, so twee, but I can’t think of a better way to say it.) I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think I could pull off YA because I don’t know now and didn’t know then a thing about young adults. And if I wrote an “Old Adult” book (because surely that’s what they need to be called, ha ha), I’m pretty sure it’d probably just tank. The review would say, “Bell’s descriptive writing sounds so forced and rarely rings true. One star.”
As for mediums, I’d love to try more screenprinting, and more lino block stuff, too.
Me: Thanks for stopping by, Cece. Your interviews are never forced and always ring true. I will let you go get back to work.
Cece: Thanks for the interesting questions, Madge! Good times.
You can learn more about Cece at her web site, She’s also on twitter at @cecebellbooks. And if you google her, you will find lots of groovy things, including recent reviews in the NYT and SLJ and more. My previous interviews with Cece can be found here and here. And locals should know that she’s going to be in Northern Virginia in late September: At the library in DC on Sept. 23, and at One More Page on the 24th at 4.
Posted in art, artist interview, author interview, genre jumpers | 2 Comments

To Catch a Frog

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last few weeks searching for a frog to use in a trailer for How to Behave at a Tea Party, my book with illustrator Heather Ross that comes out this September.

Frogs (well, one frog in particular) play a role in our book — a role that Heather amplified even more when she did the illustrations.

I spent a lot of my childhood catching frogs, toads, and other wildlife in Blacksburg, Va., where a creek near our house served as our rec room.

We live outside of D.C. now, and my own kids haven’t had as many opportunities to troll creeks for wildlife, to learn how to pluck a crayfish out of the water by grabbing him just behind the claws. But they did grow up knowing the low, did-someone-just-start-a-lawnmower sound of the bullfrog. That’s because we have a backyard pond, installed by the obsessive gardeners who owned our house before we moved in. When you turn on the waterfall, it drowns out the sound of nearby 66.

A quiet waterlily.

There had never been a huge number of frogs in the pond, only a few. And they turned out to be a great delicacy for the raccoons who visited our neighborhood. Over our years in this house, our frog population diminished, then disappeared. Last summer and this summer, the pond has been quiet, populated only by waterlilies, snails and dragonflies, none of whom say very much.


Heather has tons of Frog Experience — more than I do. Her book How to Catch a Frog, a compilation of essays on DIY, growing up and being a grown-up, takes its title from a story about her heroic attempt to save frogs  — her frogs — from Vermont dinner plates. The fabrics that she’s created over the years have featured frogs as well, as in the accompanying swatch.

This is probably a long way of saying that we really needed a frog for our book trailer. A live frog. Only I couldn’t drive north to get one from Heather. And I didn’t want to buy one from a pet store; that seemed wrong for what would amount to a cameo appearance. I put out a Facebook call to try to borrow one. I got a few offers of snakes, but that was about it. So I set out to do what I would have done when I was 9: I set out to catch a frog.

I started at a local spot along the Potomac where I’d seen frogs on every excursion — every excursion but the one I made myself, without my family, with the soul purpose of borrowing a frog for 4 seconds of internet glory. I tried a second spot where I’d seen frogs while hiking, but no dice there, either. I sat outside of our own pond again, just in case the raccoons had missed somebody. A friend suggested I contact the local nature center, but I didn’t think they were in the habit of loaning out amphibians, even if I promised no frogs would be harmed during the making of our video. I found tadpoles on Craigslist, but they wouldn’t grow arms and legs or lose their tails by our book’s release date. And I checked an exotic grocery store in case I could, like Heather, save a frog from a dinner plate. All I found was abalone.

Then Wendy Shang told me that a member of her son’s Boy Scout troop had a pond near his family’s house in more-rural McLean. The pond was full of frogs and Chrissy Brownson (the mom of said scout) was an elementary school teacher. As such, she was willing to do pretty much anything to support someone who worked on books that her students might someday read. Her boys would be glad to help us find a frog.

My definition of friendship changes each month. Right now it goes as follows: A true friend is someone who helps you find a frog, even after you’ve given up looking.

On Thursday, the kids and I drove out to McLean where we met up with Wendy and her kids and Chrissy and her kids. Right away, we could hear the frogs. The water rippled with them. But they proved tricky to catch, even with a small kayak and a net.

The kids on the hunt.

No one was ready to quit (the fun is in the search, after all), but as the light began to change, we sent the kids back up  the hill to check on a family of toads hiding out in a window well. A toad, we thought, could be the emergency stunt double; the understudy. When the kids came running back through the tall grass, they had not just one toad, but four of them, along with a spotted salamander and the most patient, photogenic frog we will ever meet.

Part of our cast...

We shot the video with a toad, first, because he was dry and easier to hold onto.

Me with Toad, and pretty much every wrinkle showing...

It was trickier with the frog, who slid through my fingers three times before resting quietly in a tea cup for his close-up.

Me with Frog.

Cup of tea?

When we were done, we let him go near the water’s edge.

Free again.

We set the toads free along the hillside. They seemed happy there. My kids were happy, too. They claimed it was one of the best days of summer.

When we got home my son went into the backyard. He came running into the house a minute later with an announcement: A small creature, startled by his bare footsteps, had just leapt off a rock and plunked into the pond.  Our own frogs were back.

Posted in frogs, gardening, heather ross, how to behave at a tea party, kidlit, trailers, videos | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Nanny X Behind the Scenes

So my mother-in-law just won the Mother-in-Law of the Year award, at least in my book, for patiently submitting to the direction of a very particular director (Kid No. 1), not to mention wearing a leather jacket in July. The result was a new book trailer for Nanny X. I’m thrilled to bits over it and am posting it below!

Because the clips are quick (the director wanted a montage effect)  and because we wanted to leave an air of mystery, you don’t get to see a lot of MIL in her Nanny X glory. But I thought I’d post a couple of behind-the-scenes photos here. (When I asked MIL if I could post them, she didn’t even ask to see them first. “Anything to promote your book,” she said.)

Mother-in-law, standing tall.



The Hat

Posted in family, kidlit, middle grade, Mission Possible, Nanny X | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

French Toast

In Dream Boy, Martin has his first experience with French Toast. Spoiler alert: He likes it. A lot. Which serves as a good reminder to the rest of us that it’s okay to eat French Toast any time of day. If your reading group takes on Dream Boy, French Toast pretty much has to be on the menu.

I have more experience with French Toast than Martin does, so I thought I’d offer up the following:

Hint No. 1: The bread: Though you can make just about any leftover bread taste good, I prefer to use challah, leftover from a Friday night shabbat dinner. (Really, we need more than leftovers so sometimes I buy or make two challahs. Thinking ahead!)

Hint No. 2: This is the one I keep saying I’m going to send to Heloise, but I haven’t: I often slice down one of the challahs and throw it in the freezer. That way, when I dip the bread in milk for the recipe, it doesn’t get too soggy or rip or crumble before I get it in the pan. The same trick works when you’re making peanut butter sandwiches. (Spread PB on frozen bread. Pack lunch box. It will thaw in plenty of time.)

My recipe is pretty basic:
Scramble an egg on one bowl/plate (I prefer using the oval dishes that you’d normally fine in Chinese restaurants.)
Pour some milk in another.
Heat a frying pan with a tablespoon of oil (you’ll be adding as you cook) and set on a medium heat.
The order goes: Soak bread in milk. Flip. Then dip in egg. Flip. Put in frying pan. Sprinkle cinnamon on the side that’s facing up. After a minute or so, flip toast and sprinkle the other side with cinnamon. Keep flipping until golden brown.
Toppings: Strawberries, blackberries, honey or syrup.

Photo by Luis Roca used with Creative Commons license:

For an alternative, try Pumpkin Pie French Toast.

For Dream Boy, try:



Books a Million




Posted in Dream Boy, family, recipes | Comments Off

Factory Man by Beth Macy

Author Beth Macy

I’m button-popping proud to present journalist Beth Macy, whose new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town, comes out today. It’s a story of family, feuding, grit, gumption, pride, war and furniture. The book, which has been getting rave reviews, is Beth’s first, but you can bet the farm that it won’t be her last.

Me: As a newspaper reporter, you’ve done in-depth stories before, but you’ve never gone in depth to the tune of 582 pages. Aside from the obvious word-count difference, what are some of the differences between this type of journalism and daily newspaper journalism?

Beth: The planning was the biggest undertaking — and by that I mean the three months it took me and my agent to get the book proposal, including a 27-chapter outline, into shape before submitting it to publishers. I followed that loose outline religiously, though some of the facts changed as my reporting turned up new details and twists. Having the rough outline storyboarded like that afforded me the opportunity to focus close-in on the chapter I was working on at the time, which was freeing. I had the entire outline written on Wizard Wall (office supply nerd alert!) on an entire wall of my office. And I kept a white board next to my desk with notes for the chapter I was working on, plus a column on the left for ideas that came to me for the subsequent chapter. Between digital documents (interview notes, copious e-mails and court-case archives) and paper documents (in books, magazine and newspaper articles), I probably had 1,000+ different sources to comb through. Command-F on my iMac desktop was a constant companion; it was hard to remember what I’d named all my files. I need a better system for my next book!

Me: I’ll ask a similar question about cultivating sources: I recall your saying you’d talked to John Basset III (the chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. and the book’s central character) more than 300 times on the phone alone. What was it like to go back to him that many times?

Beth with JBIII -- still speaking.

Beth: This is a hilarious question because I maybe called him five times out of the 300. It was — just about all of our communication — very much on his time: nights, weekends, daytime. Whenever he felt like calling me, he did. This entitled sense of timing is a huge part of his personality, though, and I was able to understand it better as I personally experienced it. I kept a list of questions I needed to ask him handy because I knew that usually a day wouldn’t pass before he’d call me again. We visited in person maybe a dozen times, including at his home and his factory.

Me: Did you ever have a point during the publishing process where you thought: This just isn’t going to happen?

Beth: No. Funny thing about an advance: They pay you, and you have to produce — or else you have to give it back, and that’s a very productivity-inspiring thing! I knew I had the bones of the story going in because I’d already written a pretty extensive 5,000 word newspaper article on JBIII. The more interviews I did and the deeper it went, the story just got richer and richer, and I became more excited about the material. I was overwhelmed at times by the scope of it — try to cover 110 years, with business practices spanning the globe — but mostly the more I learned, the juicier it got.

Me: What was the most difficult hurdle in writing this book?

Beth: Getting the CEOs who’d closed factories to talk to me. Most of them said no, including (initially) Rob Spilman of Bassett Furniture. I’d seen this great interview with George Packer on The Daily Show after his amazing book, “The Unwinding,” came out last year. And he actually made a quip about not wanting to talk to the CEOs in his book because he didn’t want them to become human to him. I thought, Amen! Then one of my best friends, a reporter visiting from Boston, convinced me that I needed to lay out all my cards with Spilman and convince him to talk. Because the book was as much, maybe even more, about what happened to Bassett, Va., as to Galax, and if I wanted to be fair and nuanced then I needed Rob’s perspective. He had a story to tell, too, and she advised being as transparent with him as possible about what I was trying to do.

A relative eventually intervened on my behalf, and I asked Rob a fourth (or whatever it was) time, and he finally relented to two lengthy interviews and several fact-checking sessions by phone and e-mail. He ended up giving me some of the best material in the book — including hilariously damning anecdotes about his father (stabbing the suckling pig and shouting “Larry Moh!”), poignant scenes about the closures, and important insights behind the company’s major shift to retail when imports hit and the factories closed. I’m grateful to him for talking to me, but I don’t expect he’s going to embrace the book because he believes the people and the town need to move on from the losses and not “sit around and cry in our beer.”

But a lot of people I talked to aren’t yet ready to move on from the losses. Many are still hurting, still looking for work. To move on, those losses first need to be acknowledged.

"The first known photo of Bassett Furniture Industries, circa 1902, wherein a wily saw miller named J.D. Bassett Sr. and his brother set out to swipe furniture-making from Michigan and New York and turn all that Reconstruction-era cheap labor and free trees into a furniture-making dynasty." (Quotes from Beth Macy)

Me: Has your research for Factory Man changed your shopping habits at all? In what way?

Beth: Our dishwasher broke last year, and when we finally got around to replacing it, we researched our options and chose a Maytag replacement because it was made in a Kentucky factory and was exactly what we wanted. (The price was comparable to the imports.) I go out of my way, buying clothes, to shop at local boutiques that carry made-in-America items, and I always thank the owners for providing that option. I made an attempt to buy Christmas presents for everybody with made-in-America items, but that was waylaid by the teenagers who wanted electronics and a new cellphone – neither of which were made domestically. When the older boy went off to his first college apartment and took his bed with him, we turned his room into a guest room and bought made-in-Galax Vaughan-Bassett Furniture from a local store. I know intimately now that there are real people and real livelihoods at stake at the other end of a consumer purchase. Continue reading

Posted in author interview, family, furniture, future award winners, genre jumpers, history, journalism, nonfiction, poverty | 2 Comments