Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Cece Bell

h1 December 4th, 2008 by jules

If I were more organized I would have declared this Blog Tour Week here at 7-Imp. First, Maxwell Eaton III stopped by, kicking off his tour at 7-Imp, and now Cece Bell is here in the midst of her own tour (if you’re interested in winning some original Cece art at the close of her tour, be sure to check out that link). I think Maxwell and Cece are a good pair of illustrators to show up beside one another during a one-week span, seeing as how they both create your more light-hearted, cheerful, cartoon-esque, colorful, fun-filled fare — books with uncluttered, spare styles and simple, rounded shapes for the youngest of picture book readers, yet ones that rely on their visual humor to snag the reader. Cece, who’s joining me for “buttered toast and hot chocolate” this morning, has certainly created books without a sock monkey as the protagonist, but there’s no question she’s better known for her tales of one of those old-fashioned, hand-crafted toys made from, you know, socks and fashioned to look like, you know, monkeys (all those titles published by Candlewick). Since 2003, Cece’s brought us three tales of Sock Monkey, beginning with Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood: A Star is Bathed, which Publishers Weekly described as Cece’s “imaginatively silly debut.” Bouncy, breezy, “as light as cotton candy” (that would be School Library Journal on Sock Monkey Boogie Woogie: A Friend is Made) — these are descriptors for Cece’s tales. And, whew, what would we (and the children. THINK OF THE CHILDREN!) do in this world without our bouncy and breezy?

Cece’s brand-new title, Bee-Wigged (Candlewick, November ’08), which involves nary a monkey, is a tale aimed at young readers about the problem of being yourself and finding new friends. Here’s a brief moment with Jerry Bee, who loves people but is having trouble making friends, what with being a bee-with-a-stinger and all. Jerry picks up a wig he thinks might help solve his issues of alienation:

I have learned that it’s always fun when Cece stops by, so let’s get right to it. Shall we get the basics from Cece while we set the table here for our seven questions over breakfast? And I thank her very much for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Cece: Author/illustrator.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Cece:


“My very own Sock Monkey, looking gorgeous. He needs no help from the Pig!”

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Cece: Sock Monkey books: Freehand + Photoshop on the Mac. Others: Acrylic paints applied using lots and lots of stencils, and outlined in black or brown ink.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Cece (pictured here in “this little carnival-like thing that I made for my book launch party”): I reckon the books for the older kids are a little bit more complex — they all seem to have at least one climactic spread where there is a lot of stuff to look at. The younger books are simpler and bolder.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Cece: Montgomery County, Virginia (close to Virginia Tech).

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Cece: I sent out one book a long time ago to Harper Collins, I think, and got rejected (the story was way too dark, but the illustrations were pretty tasty), so I hung it up, so to speak, until a better idea came along. The better idea came along, and I made a really nice dummy version of it and sent it to Candlewick Press in 2000. I got a phone call three months later, asking me to make a few changes and re-submit it. You better believe I made those changes in a hurry. Once the changes were made and approved, I signed a contract with Candlewick. The book, Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood, came out a whopping three years later.


Bee-Wigged tees, prizes from Cece’s book launch party

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Cece: www.cecebell.com.

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Cece: If the kids are reading-age, I get volunteers from the audience and the volunteers and I present Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood like a play with scripts and simple costumes. When the kids are younger, I usually present Sock Monkey Boogie Woogie, and there is a lot of dancing. When the kids are in fifth grade or so, I do Sock Monkey Rides Again, because that book is all about kissing, and I enjoy seeing the kids squirm. I also teach the kids how to draw all the characters in the books and introduce them to the original stuffed animals that started it all. I haven’t yet started presenting Bee-Wigged yet, so I’m not sure what I’ll do. It’s good to have a very interactive program, as it takes some of the pressure off to perform the whole time. I am quite shy, after all!


“The kids holding up their drawings of the Sock Monkey characters
for me to see at a school visit.”


“I use this suitcase to carry Sock Monkey and his friends, plus a bunch of other materials, when I visit schools. I found the suitcase at a thrift store and then gussied it up a bit with some stencils and paint.”


“Artwork by a student from one of my school visits.”

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Cece: I only teach a little bit (what I do during school visits), but the way I teach drawing is very much based on the way Ed Emberley taught me in his drawing books. That guy is ACES! I checked out his books from my school library every Friday, and did all the exercises over the weekends. A great way to learn how to draw.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Cece: I’m still wating to hear back from Candlewick about a few projects (oh, the waiting), so I’d better not spill any beans just yet.

Mmm. Hot chocolate.Okay, the table’s set. We’ve got our hot chocolate, and we’re good-to-go with our toast, too. Now we’re ready to talk more specifics . . .

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Cece: I usually get my best ideas when I’m walking one of my four dogs, and for some reason, every time my husband Sam and I go to Wendy’s without the kids, I end up with a great idea. Granted, we hardly ever go to Wendy’s without the kids, so ideas from Wendy’s are few and far between. But they’re pretty good ones!

When I get a decent idea, I usually write it on a piece of paper and stick it in the top drawer of my desk. When I’m ready to start working on a new book, I look at all those scraps of paper and pick one that is most appealing — or combine a few into one story.

I always, always write the story first, trying very hard to get it as perfect and streamlined as possible. Once I’m satisfied with the story, I do a bird’s eye view of the whole book on one piece of paper, to try to figure out the pacing and that sort of stuff. Usually I end up editing the words at this point as well. Lots of back-and-forth between words and tiny pictures.

I then enlarge the tiny drawings from the bird’s eye view, and these pencil drawings are very clear. I scan these into my computer, and then use Freehand to lay out the book with text. I print out an initial version of the book, and make a dummy out of it.


“A clear sketch of the first page from Bee-Wigged. The drawings in my dummies look like this: kinda sparse, but clear.”

Then the moment of reckoning: I give it to my husband (Sam Riddleburger, writer of The QwikPick Adventure Society and soon-to-be-released Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run) to read. He is an excellent editor, and is especially good about helping me guide the plot when it gets a little too weird. I usually end up making a lot of changes based on Sam’s comments and reactions.

I re-print the pages, make a new dummy, and send it to Candlewick (they have first dibs). If they buy it, then there’s a lot of back-and-forth to perfect the book. And finally, when I get the go-ahead to do the final illustrations, I brace myself, cry a little, and then begin the really hard part!

Most of my process is an adaptation of stuff I learned from Uri Shulevitz’s wonderful book about creating books for children. A very, very useful guide for anyone just starting out.


“Reams and reams of paper stencils that I used
to make the illustrations for
Bee-Wigged.”

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Cece: I bought one of those Home Depot two-story barn structures and hired a very nice man to come and finish the inside for me. It’s not connected to the house, so it feels like I’m actually “going to work” when I actually do go to do some work.

My husband and sons are on strict orders not to come inside, unless I’m feeling particularly charitable. It’s got lovely shelves under the stairs for lots of storage, and a view of the north fork of the Roanoke River, plus the train on the other side of that.


“My art scruff, under the stairs of my studio.”

I painted the walls very plain and simple (my house is the wilder place), so that I wouldn’t be distracted by colorful, well, distractions, while I worked on illustrations. The upstairs is used for storage and also for sleeping, but I’m loathe to admit this. There’s no plumbing, so I bring over jugs of water, and have to go back home to visit our friend Johnny.


“The curtain in my studio. I dig this fabric — and pretend that one of the couples it features is actually me and Sam.”


“The front door of my house. I was a bit Sock Monkey obsessed,
even before the books came out.”


“Button mosaic of Sock Monkey taking a bath; this hangs in my bathroom.”



“My kitchen cabinets. Our house is much goofier than my studio.”

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Cece: Alice and Martin Provensen (especially their book Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm).


“My original copy of Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, my very favorite book of all time. I got this in 1976 from my Uncle Wallace when I was 5.”

Richard Scarry (especially his Best Counting Book Ever).

The Judy Blume books.

The Beverly Cleary books.

The Little House books.

The 1965 Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cook Book that belonged to my older siblings (I lived in that book).

“The drinks featured in the Betty Crocker cook book that I adored as a kid.
I tried to make all of ‘em!”

“The fantasy cake from the Betty Crocker cook book –
none can resist its royal charms!”

Small Pig by Arnold Lobel.

The Secret Garden.

Lots of the Little Golden Books (those illustrations are fantabulous).

An enormous book of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo comic strips that I looked at a lot in my local library.


Little Nemo in Slumberland, circa early-1900s (image in the public domain)

Ed Emberley’s drawing books.

Steven Caney’s Kids’ America (as a kid I tried to do all the projects in the book, and came fairly close).

Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day (quite possible the most beautiful kids’ book ever made — I think this was the first time I wigged out over illustrations as a kid).

These really wonderful books from the early 1930’s called Book Trails (there are 6 of them) that belonged to my father and my aunt, and which were at my grandmother’s house for years and years. They are filled with short stories and poems for children, and the illustrations are lithographs — amazing. They’re in my house now!

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Cece: We’d probably be drinking orange juice, as I am such a boring teetotaler, but they would be: Alice Provensen, Ed Emberley, and William Joyce. But it’s really the ones that have left us that I want to talk to, mostly because I know I‘ll never get that chance, and those three would be: James Marshall, Arnold Lobel, and William Steig.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Cece: I sometimes listen to stuff when I don’t have to think too hard. I like Burt Bacharach’s stuff, Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, Les Paul, The Swingle Singers, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. The kinds of things you’d find in your parents’ LP collection (if your parents were, like mine, buying music in the 1960s, and in no other decade) or in the E-Z Listening sections of music stores.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Cece: I am stunningly beautiful.

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Cece: Q: How did you get so stunningly beautiful?

A: Good genes, and a four-hour long daily beauty regimen that I adapted from my Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life book.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Cece: “Periwinkle.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Cece: “Digit,” especially in reference to one’s finger.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Cece: Plenty of sleep, dog-walking, talking to Sam, fun food, and, I guess, eating at Wendy‘s.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Cece: Myself or others in a bad mood.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Cece: “Crikey!”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Cece: My older son belting out the Linus and Lucy song at the top of his lungs.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Cece: My older son belting out the Linus and Lucy song at the top of his lungs.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Cece: I have little musical ability but have always fantasized about being a really, really good jazz pianist, who could play anytime, anywhere — at the drop of a hat.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Cece: Medical stuff.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Cece: “You done pretty good, kid.”

* * * * * * *

Author photos and sketches courtesy of Cece Bell. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

Spread from BEE-WIGGED: Copyright © 2008 Cece Bell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.





22 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Cece Bell”

  1. Wow! Button mosaic! I want to see a book illustrated in button mosaics!
    Z-Dad


  2. I have Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, also acquired for something like a dollar or two. That pig, she’s got some good tips. :D

    I love your studio and and now I want one. It made me think of David Macauley’s studio, actually, which we visited once for my picture book class at Simmons. His studio is in a separate structure from his house, too, and it really does make it like you’re “going to work.” I have an office in my house, but it’s very easy to sit down ready to work and remember something you meant to do in the other room. The separate studio makes me think of growing up on my family farm, actually–you left the house to work, but it was nice to be able to have home so close by. My dad was just an arm’s length away when we needed to find him in the barn or workshop.


  3. [...] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast - Buttered Toast and Hot Chocolate with [...]


  4. I loved the Ed Emberly books, and I still have my copy of Small Pig. I love it when cool author-illustrator-y people like the same things I do.

    And when I grow up, I want a little barn workshop like that, too. And button mosaics in my bathroom, and utensils on my cabinets. And possibly pigs guiding me through horrifying beauty routines…

    This was just such a fun interview, and it’s easy to see how the fun just immigrates into all of Cece Bell’s work. Sock Monkeys Rule!


  5. Thanks, all.

    TadMack, I’m really interested now in knowing exactly what Miss Piggy’s beauty regime is. Based on the look on Cece’s face (that is my FAVORITE pic), it’s gotta be pretty earth-shattering. That picture is actually the before-beauty-regime pic, and the pic that opens the post is the “after,” but I couldn’t resist posting them this way.

    Stacy, I wish I had a studio away from the home, too, and I’m not even an artist*. I think everyone needs one. With all your favorite things stashed inside.

    {* This would not stop me, though, from trying to make my own art anyway.}


  6. “Art scruff” I’m in love with that phrase. And now I know why I’m not an artist—no scruff stash.

    Fun fact: I was wearing a Miss Piggy t-shirt when I went out with my husband for the first time.

    I vote for the button mosaic book too!

    Great interview, as always, but the pics were particularly fun today.


  7. What a totally fun and delightful interview! So many things resonated loud and clear: sock monkey, periwinkle, william joyce, painted kitchen cabinets, burt bacharach, betty crocker cookbook. :)

    Thank you for bringing the stunningly beautiful and wonderfully talented cece to us today!


  8. Sara, I love that fun fact!

    Jama, yes, Cece is beautiful, with or without Miss Piggy.


  9. I have often fantasized about my own little place with the two story building from Lowes ever since I saw it a few years ago. I couldn’t get past the lack of plumbing but maybe I’ll change. I love Cece’s cabinets and stuff!


  10. Holy cow – a second “7 Questions” interview in one week! Spoil us, why dontcha?

    Cece Bell gave a great interview. It’s impossible to read this and not think Wow, is that a nice, funny, FUN person or what?!?

    The differences between her studio and home decor cracked me up, and I was charmed by the fact that she selected so many images from the Betty Crocker cookbook.

    Her artwork is great, but I did have one question (may be unanswerable): Whatever happened to that first, unpublished, “way too dark” story rejected by HarperCollins???

    Oh — and hot chocolate and buttered toast: excellent choice. Especially for dipping.


  11. JES asked about that first, rejected manuscript. This was fully illustrated in color studies, with one big spread done in color. It was MAGNIFICENT! A giant cityscape scene.

    I never understood why HarperCollins didn’t see the potential.

    Every once in a while, I try to get her to do something with the book or at least with that incredible spread. Maybe some day she’ll let me put it online…

    —-

    Jules! Thanks so much for this great interview! It’s so great to hear others appreciating Cece’s nutty ways the way I do.


  12. [...] Thursday: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast [...]


  13. [...] to make yourself grin, head over to read Seven Imp’s Interview with Cece Bell. Who couldn’t love a woman who has painted a sock monkey chef on her kitchen [...]


  14. [...] Cece Bell (interviewed December 4) on school visits: “It’s good to have a very interactive program, as it takes some of the [...]


  15. Thanks a lot for your inspring sharing.
    Love to read your story, and have tea and chat with you sometime.
    Pearl from Hong Kong


  16. I saw many sites but yours is very inspiring, you got talent in writing posts, blog bookmarked! Waiting for more info!


  17. [...] Read this incredible interview with Ms. Bell at http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=1520 [...]


  18. Isn’t her husband’s name, Tom?


  19. [...] day, I would love to have a formal studio like the Steads’ or Cece Bell’s. But, all in all, this workspace gets the job [...]


  20. [...] morning at the Kirkus Book Blog Network, I take a look at author/illustrator Cece Bell’s newest creation, a chapter book called Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover. That link will be [...]


  21. [...] week, I wrote here about Cece Bell’s new chapter book, Rabbit and Robot. Today, I’ve got a bit more art, and she’s visiting [...]


  22. […] here are author/illustrator Cece Bell (winner of a 2013 Geisel Honor Award) and her husband, New York Times bestselling author Tom […]


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