In preparing the exhibit and book launch of Cece Bell’s Newbery Honor Award-winning El Deafo for the Salem Museum (now a virtual exhibit, which you can see here), I asked author Cece Bell a few questions to help me prepare a press release. She was kind enough to share her frank and thoughtful answers.
1. When writing El Deafo, you had to dig deep into events of the past. How did you go about finding the truth of your memories?
Some of my friends have told me I have a freakish memory…but I think it’s more likely that I have a freakish ability to tell tall tales about the past. Seriously, though, I was aiming at capturing the feelings of that period more than the absolute truth of that period, so I do tend to exaggerate my own personal story a bit. To make the story flow, I had to slightly readjust my personal timeline (for example, some of the things that happened in the third grade occur in the fifth grade in the book); I also developed a few characters by making composites of the people I knew, because otherwise there would be too many characters in the book and it would get confusing.
I didn’t have to dig very deep to get to those memories and feelings, however. My hearing loss was quite traumatic, and adjusting to the hearing aid in school caused so much embarrassment and personal agony, that the memories and feelings from this period of my life have pretty much been accessible to me forever. I’m glad they were easy to get to—it made writing and illustrating the book that much easier.
2. Tell me about your process in approaching and writing the book. What did you have to go through to draft and draw El Deafo?
It was brutal work that took a lot of time, and a lot of brain power, too. I started with a detailed outline, which I wrote and rewrote I don’t know how many times. Then, each chapter of that outline became a chapter in the book, with drawings and speech balloons and panels. Each chapter went through many, many drafts (evolving from rough to polished) before I even showed a chapter to my editor, Susan Van Metre. Susan read each chapter, and made suggestions—all of which were useful. But making even one change in a graphic novel is difficult—a change to one panel means other surrounding panels—and even other pages—must change, too. It’s a domino effect, and very labor-intensive.
Once the chapters were finally the way Susan and I wanted them, I then had to go through the long, long process of inking the book. Fortunately, Susan was willing to hire someone else to do the coloring. My good friend from college, graphic novelist David Lasky did a wonderful job with this. When he finished coloring the pages, he passed them back to me. I fine-tuned the work David had done, and after about three intense years of work, the book was done. Whew!
3. What was the most difficult part (emotionally) in writing this book? Did you have any reservations or worries along the way?
Chapter 9, the chapter about sign language, was the most difficult chapter to write. I had a bad attitude about sign language when I was a kid, and so I struggled with how to show this without being disrespectful to all the people who use sign language as their primary means of communication. I also struggled with a few less-than-complimentary depictions of friends from that period. Do I put these representations—which are probably unfair, since they are based solely on my feelings, and not on my friends’ feelings—out in the world? Is it worth taking the risk of hurting these people’s feelings? Or do I stay true to my own childhood feelings and tell a better story? I chose the latter, mostly because I think the story will resonate more with the kids who might benefit from reading stories about surviving difficult friendships. I’m a little worried about the repercussions of this decision, though.
4. What are you most excited about in getting El Deafo out in the world?
I’m excited about today’s deaf kids reading it, because they’ll get to see that even though the technology has changed, a lot of the struggles are the same…and hopefully a lot of the fun things you can do with the technology is similar, too.I’m excited about hearing kids reading it, because they’ll get a better understanding of what their deaf classmates are going through (and this, in turn, will help deaf kids in a way that I would have loved when I was a kid). I’m excited about kids with any disability reading it, because even though the physical struggles might be different, the emotional ones are the same.Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves in books and television and movies. I think all kids, deaf and hearing, will understand that first crush, and that quest to find a true friend, which are both featured in the book. I’m especially excited for teachers, and adults in general, to read it, too—perhaps the book will serve as a reminder to treat all kids the same way, regardless of their abilities. But I’m mostly excited about making people laugh. In spite of its sometimes heavy subject matter, it’s ultimately supposed to be a funny book.
5. Say something (if you haven’t already) about the local connection to El Deafo. (Basically, why should Roanoke Valley people be particularly interested in this book?)
Roanoke Valley folks should be VERY interested in this book! Most of the book takes place in Salem, since that’s where I grew up. There are lots of Salem landmarks in the book: Academy Street School, GW Carver Elementary School, downtown Salem, the interior of Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy (no book about Salem, VA is allowed to exist without this location in it!), my house on Broad Street and Broad Street in general. If you taught in the Salem schools between 1976 and 1982, you might see yourself in the book somewhere—and sometimes in unflattering situations (sorry about that). If you were a kid during this period and remember going to school with me, you might see a few characters that you recognize…and maybe you’ll even see someone who looks like YOU! Who doesn’t want to see themselves portrayed as a cute rabbit? No one, that’s who! I’ve always thought it was very enjoyable to see someone or something I recognized in a graphic novel, so I think this book will give the local folks who read it a lot of pleasure for that reason alone. Hopefully they’ll enjoy the rest of the story, too.
Note: These questions were asked and answered before El Deafo was awarded the Newbery Honor Award. Since that time, Ralph Berrier of the Roanoke Times has spoken with Cece. I’ll post a link to his interview with her when it’s available.
In the meantime, you can check out this video showing Cece’s reaction to the news: