Graphic Novels Get Awarded! Interview With Newbery Honoree Cece Bell

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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Every year, the American Library Association breaks out the medals and awards children’s and young adult books with some of the most prestigious awards they have to offer. The big two—and those with which most people are familiar—are the Newbery Medal (for outstanding contribution to children’s literature) and the Caldecott Medal (for most distinguished American picture book for children).

Graphic novels have always had a somewhat … uncomfortable relationship with these awards. Some claim that they shouldn’t be considered alongside more “traditional” children’s books, and some argue that there should be an entirely separate award for graphic novels.

This year, for the first time ever, graphic novels were recognized in a huge way. Cece Bell’s El Deafo received a Newbery Honor, and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki became the first graphic novel to be awarded a Caldecott Honor. (Click here for my interview with Mariko and Jillian Tamaki.)

Cece Bell’s graphic memoir appeared on many Best of 2014 lists (including our own) for its charming, honest, and funny portrayal of her experiences and struggles after she loses her hearing (due to meningitis) at a young age.

I had the opportunity to chat with Cece Bell soon after she won the Newbery about the award, setting a precedent, and the lessons she’s learned.

GeekDad: First of all, congratulations! I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to say it, but this is huge, right? The Newbery is the most prestigious award to recognize children’s literature. Having a graphic novel win a Newbery Honor is pretty groundbreaking. Do you think this finally validates the medium in a very public way?

Cece Bell: Oh my gracious, YES! And now would be a great opportunity for me to say that my book would not have won this honor if it weren’t for all the other amazing graphic novelists who have been working so hard and for so many years in this format, often with little or no recognition. They ALL paved the way for me to get to this point, and I cannot thank them enough. There’s a bit of guilt for me in getting this award, because there are many graphic novels from previous years that could totally fit the bill for the Newbery. Those are the books that got me here.

Bell, Cece 1GD: What advice would you give to a young Cece? And, similarly, what advice would you give to a child (or to the parent of a child) who is facing his or her own set of challenges, whether from deafness or something else entirely?

CB: To Young Cece I would say, good grief, child—there is no shame in asking for help! (I still have to tell Old Cece this all the time, so obviously Young Cece would need to hear it every single ding-danged day.) I’d give the same advice to kids. I might even tell them that they might have to overcompensate sometimes, and that this is actually not a bad thing … because if you work harder, you’re gonna get farther in life.

My advice to parents is to be sensitive to the times that your child does not want your help—to give your child the space and the freedom to make his or her own choices in terms of how he or she wants to deal with his or her unique situation. In other words, parents whose kids are facing huge challenges might be extra worried, and want to do everything possible to help their child and then some—but sometimes trusting the child to figure out things independently is a HUGE big deal and a very empowering thing.

GD: Has your creative process changed over the years? Would you recommend your process to a young author/illustrator?

CB: I think it’s pretty much stayed the same. I like to write first, while not worrying so much about whether or not I can actually draw what I write. (Later, I smack myself for putting cars and adults in the story. Good grief, cars and adults? So hard to draw.) I do a lot of pre-planning—storyboarding and that kind of thing—and it takes me a long time to get all that right. But it’s my favorite part of the process, all that planning and figuring out—it’s like putting together a really challenging jigsaw puzzle. But then the puzzle is done, and you have to do the final artwork … and that’s my least favorite part of all. The final product never turns out quite as grand as it is in my head during the planning stages.

I would certainly be happy to share this process with young authors and illustrators … and I expect a lot of other authors and illustrators do something similar. But everyone has to find their own way in this, I think, so I wouldn’t force anyone to work this way. It’s hard but fun.

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GD: When you started making books, you were worried about getting pigeonholed as a “deaf author and artist” rather than just an “awesome author and artist.” So it took some time before you felt ready to share your personal story. Do you have advice for kids (or adults) who might have similar worries and feel held back from sharing the stories they have inside them?

CB: I’m not sure I do, other than to say, do what’s comfy, and share when you are ready. The world needs your stories, but the world can also wait! I felt like I had to prove myself first—that’s just my way. Getting a Geisel honor for Rabbit & Robot felt like I had finally “made it” on terms that had nothing to do with deafness, but everything to do with skill and hard work. Prizes should not be the goal of this—connecting with young readers is the real goal—but getting that kind of acknowledgment from librarians and from peers is a wonderful validation. I got that, and then I could go forward in this new direction.

GD: You’ve published picture books, early reader chapter books, and of course a graphic novel. There’s something to love about each format, and each has the ability to reach readers of different ages. What’s your favorite format?

CB: I think I love them all equally. I might have a greater affinity for the early reader chapter books … but I think my storytelling was at its best in the GN format. I would love to be able to create an astonishingly beautiful picture book, but I play for yuk yuks so often that I might not accomplish that goal, ha ha! Yuk yuks are hard to make astonishingly beautiful. But I’ll try.

GD: I know you’ve got a new picture book coming out this summer, but what else is on the horizon? Any more graphic novels in the works?

CB: I’d love to do another GN, but gracious, the work. But I am definitely considering it. I’m finishing up the illustrations for a picture book I wrote about a woodchuck, and I’m getting ready to start the illustrations for a series of early readers (about a Venus flytrap who is also a detective) by my husband Tom. There’s a second Rabbit & Robot in the works, and I’m supposed to be writing a fourth Sock Monkey book. It’s been so long since I’ve written about ol’ Sock Monkey that I will have to take a time machine to 33-year-old Cece’s brain and pick up a few ideas there. Wish me luck!

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