VINTON–CeCe Bell writes and illustrates books for children. On March 26, she paid a visit to Herman L. Horn Elementary School in Vinton to share with students her own personal story and some of the stories that she has created.
Bell generally prefers to produce picture books and early childhood chapter books, “probably because of the illustration opportunities.”
Occasionally she illustrates a book for another author.
In June she is teaming up with her husband, author Tom Angleberger, on “Crankee Doodle,” which she describes as the story of Yankee Doodle in a bad mood.
Bell grew up in Salem and then attended the College of William and Mary, where she met her husband when they both worked on the newspaper staff. They married and moved to Ohio where she completed a degree in design and illustration at Kent State University.
Before she found success as an author and illustrator she spent some time as a waitress, working for a dentist, doing commercial art for a pet supply company, and freelancing as an illustrator working with Crayola. That all eventually led to illustrating and writing children’s books.
However, as she explained to the students at HLH, Bell found her direction early in life at age four, when she was stricken with meningitis, which left her hearing impaired. She spent her time in the hospital drawing and began a journey toward the discovery of what she now calls her “superpowers.”
While the hearing loss was traumatic, the solution was almost as bad and equally as formative for Bell. When she entered first grade, the available technology of the day for hearing impaired students was a very large device called the Phonic Ear, which was strapped to her chest with cords running to hearing aids in her ears. In essence it was a radio receiver which used sounds from her teacher’s radio microphone transmitter.
Bell was already a shy child with few friends at the time. She found the gadget embarrassing to say the least, until she rediscovered her sense of humor by realizing that she could hear every sound and every conversation entered into by her teacher and those close to the teacher anywhere in the school. Classmates became impressed by her “super ears”, and she made friends.
The hearing loss not only led to the discovery of her sense of humor, but also her sense of self. Bell became a very visual person, since she had to rely on her vision, not her hearing, for information.
“That probably shapes everything,” said Bell. “It’s the reason I am even an illustrator in the first place, as it’s such a visual career. I also ‘missed’ a lot of what was going on in the world, simply because I didn’t hear what was being said, so I made up a lot of stuff along the way (and tended to see the world in a much more positive light because of it), so that probably made me a little bit more creative, too.”
Today she wears two hearing aids and lip reads, but still has difficulty at times hearing and understanding what is communicated orally.
Her message to the students she met with in assemblies at Herman L. Horn was that “if you feel different in school, if you face some type of challenges, those will become your superpowers when you grow up.”
Bell is quite content with her adult life. She lives with her husband and children in the New River Valley. She walks just a few steps to work every day in a studio next door to her home. She dresses as she likes for work, even in pajamas. She doesn’t have a boss nearby telling her what to do. She can decorate her living and working space in any way that she pleases. From a difficult beginning, life has turned out well.
Bell spent the morning at HLH talking with students about her life as a child, reading to them from her newest book, “Rabbit and Robot: the Sleepover,” and teaching them to draw rabbits, robots, and Sock Monkeys from her trademark “Sock Monkey” book series.
She explained to students that the Rabbit and Robot book is autobiographical because she shares the Rabbit’s traits of being somewhat bossy, very organized, and easily upset when things don’t go right. She invited students to volunteer to read parts of the story with her to their classmates. She praised their artwork.
After the assemblies, Bell lunched with a select group of students, one from each classroom, and followed up with a book signing that actually involved a lot of illustrating.
Bell says she has a drawer full of scraps of paper with ideas for books on them. She follows a process in her work. Once she has settled on the plot of the story, she makes a storyboard to see the book unfold. She usually writes the story first, and then illustrates it.
Her husband edits her work and she invites input from her children.
“Our kids definitely read the books early on, and sometimes I can tell when they are having trouble with some of it, and so I will know that changes will need to be made.”
Bell recently won the prestigious Geisel Honor for “Rabbit and Robot.” Her favorite of her own works is “Bee-Wigged”, also a favorite of the children at Herman L. Horn, if the group of students standing in line to have books autographed was indicative. This is a tale aimed at young readers about the problem of being yourself and of finding new friends.
“Almost all my books are about friendship, and I think that’s because I was constantly looking for that ideal friend who would like me for me,” said Bell. “Fortunately, I found a few good eggs along the way!”
Bell is currently working on a book for middle grades about her hearing loss.