young girl holding El Deafo in school

Meet Cece Bell – First Book Friend, Author & AppleTV Superstar

On January 7, the First Book family celebrated the El Deafo premiere on AppleTV, written and illustrated by long-time friend, donor, and author Cece Bell. Truly a wonderful human being and supporter of First Book, Cece and her husband Tom Angleberger, have always been generous when it comes to the First Book mission and helping to put books in the hands of those who need them the most.

We also love Cece because of the way her books beautifully address ableism and how hard it can be to make friends at school. In Cece’s graphic novel memoir, she chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences to fit in, make friends, declare a place for herself in the world, and find the friend she’s longed for.

El Deafo is available for purchase on First Book’s Marketplace for eligible educators and comes with a free reading guide, designed to promote social and emotional learning skills necessary for kids to manage their emotions and behavior. If you’re not a Title I educator but want to support First Book, you can purchase El Deafo at Bookshop, where 10% of purchases directly support our mission.

Curious to learn more about Cece? Dive into this beautifully honest interview that made us smile and think about how we can make people laugh more often.

Meet Cece Bell

What educator had a significant impact on your life and/or on your development as a writer?

My graduate school illustration professor and mentor, Jerry Kalback. I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t been an illustrator first — I got into writing via illustration, if that makes sense. Jerry “discovered” me after I sent slides of my undergraduate work to the printmaking department at Kent State University. (I had NO idea what I was doing with my life at that time, and printmaking sounded like my best bet.) Somehow, Jerry got ahold of my slides and must have thought to himself, that’s no printmaker! That’s an illustrator! He actually called me up at my parents’ house (where I was living while working at a dentist’s office, of all things) to encourage me to visit the illustration and design department at KSU. Tom and I were about to get married; we drove eight-and-a-half hours up to Kent from the southwestern part of Virginia so I could tour the department. After one hour of talking to Jerry (who happened to be one of the kindest, and also one of the funniest, people I’d ever met), my mind was made up: I was going to KSU, and I was going to be an illustrator. Anytime I added goofy stuff and silly words to my illustrations, Jerry got excited. He’d mention children’s books as a possible career for me, and I’m sure one of the reasons I pursued kids’ books is that I wanted to make him proud. Jerry Bee in my book Bee-Wigged is named after him. Jerry passed away, unexpectedly, in November. I feel his loss every day.

What message of encouragement do you have for kids right now?

If you mean literally right now, then: Tough times make stronger humans. And there are good days and bad days, but the good days make everything worth it. Make stuff and help others. In fact, make stuff and give it to others. It’ll make you feel really good.

You and your husband Tom Angleberger are generous supporters of First Book. Why do you choose to support our mission, and what would you say to someone contemplating supporting our work?

We love the idea of putting books into the hands of kids who don’t always have easy access to them. I remember that, as a kid, book ownership always felt big and bold. And I was a very privileged kid. So imagine how much bigger and bolder book ownership is going to feel like for someone who doesn’t have that same access I had. Books can help kids to feel less lonely, and they can inspire them to forge paths out of difficult situations. To those who are thinking about helping, I’d quote First Book’s mission and say, wouldn’t you like to help “build a path out of poverty through educational equity?” I sure do!

Your graphic novel El Deafo was recently adapted into an AppleTV Original series! Can you share some of your involvement with the new series? What has been your experience so far?

I’ve been 100% involved from the very beginning — Apple has been a wonderful partner. It kept me so busy that I couldn’t focus on any of my book projects! I’ve made lots of new friends, especially TV icon Will McRobb, who was my co-writer and co-exec-producer. I had to educate many people along the way about my particular “brand” of deafness, but everyone was more than willing to listen and take everything I said into consideration. There were some bumps along the way, and I had to adjust my definition of what “adaptation” means, but I’m really thrilled with the result and am so grateful for the hundreds of people who worked hard to make it all happen.

What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

Honestly, mostly I want readers to laugh! And as sappy as this sounds, I hope that my books remind people that there is real fun in being nice to each other.

When you’re not writing/illustrating, what do you do for work and/or for fun?

I take care of my family. Do a lot of cooking, a lot of dog walking, a lot of driving Tom nuts with repetitive humor. Read too much news. Read too much celebrity news. I love to sew — that’s my go-to non-work art thing, and it’s what I do after reading too much news (especially the celebrity stuff, ha ha) to help settle myself down.

What is it that excites you about writing/illustrating or that makes you want to keep creating books?

I love making people laugh. I want to keep making people laugh, so I keep trying to make funny stuff. I also love those early phases of story-making, when it’s a big puzzle that you are trying to solve. It’s so gratifying when those pieces start really fitting together well.

What is a question you wish you got asked more often – or a question you’ve always wanted someone to ask you?

How are you so good-looking?

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