VINTON–Acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Cece Bell visited Stewartsville Elementary School (SES) on October 30. She has won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Medal for her book “Rabbit and Robot” and the Newberry Honor Medal for her autobiographical book “El Deafo.”
The visit was coordinated by librarian Teresa Calhoun.
This was not Bell’s first visit to SES. She and her husband, Tom Angleberger, also a children’s author, were invited to the school several years ago for Career Day—back before they became internationally famous. Angleberger was then a columnist for the Roanoke Times.
Calhoun had purchased all of the couple’s books and read them to students before their visit. The two authors were so touched by their welcome at the school that Angleberger promised to put SES into a future story—which he did–and Calhoun ended up as a character. Again on this visit, Calhoun familiarized the students with Bell’s work before her appearance at the school.
Bell started writing children’s books 15 years ago with her Sock Monkey series. She said that about seven years ago she started on her “El Deafo” autobiography, working on it periodically. Producing the book was very intensive because it is a graphic book with her story told in cartoons with speech balloons.
It is a book which will strike a chord with any child who feels like they don’t fit in, she believes.
Bell tells her own personal story of a young girl who lived a fairly normal life until she lost her hearing at age 4 due to spinal meningitis. She spent weeks in the hospital and ended up with a 90 percent hearing loss.
When she first entered school she was with other students with impaired hearing. They learned to navigate the hearing world by lip reading. Sign language was not the generally accepted technique for the hearing impaired in those days.
But then Bell’s family moved to Salem in 1976 where there was no special school and no special program for deaf children. She was the only child in the school (G.W. Carver) who was hard of hearing and she found herself an outsider not just as a “new kid” but as a “deaf new kid.”
“El Deafo” is the story of those years when she learned to adapt to her challenges and turn them into positives.
When Bell 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. Her teacher wore a microphone throughout the day which acted as a transmitter for Bell’s radio receiver.
She said it felt like the teacher was speaking directly into her ears at all times. The device was so embarrassing to her that she took to hiding it by wearing sweaters, jackets, or overalls to cover it up.
Bell was a shy child with few friends at the time. She found the gadget “huge and clunky” and embarrassing to say the least, isolating her even more from other students until she realized that she had “superpowers” because she could hear every sound and every conversation entered into by her teacher anywhere in the school.
In time she turned the disadvantages of the device into a way to put a positive spin on her situation. Just like Batman with his technology strapped around his waist, she chose to accept her deafness and her Phonic Ear as a superpower which enabled her to make friends and to find humor in her disability. She proclaimed herself “El Deafo,” a creative sound detective who could work her superpowers to benefit the entire class.
One of her teachers would leave the class for about 20 minutes each day—a time they were supposed to be doing math work. Given Bell’s superpowers of being able to hear the teacher anywhere in the building (unbeknownst to the teacher), the students were able to play while the teacher was away, because she was able to let them know when the teacher was returning.
She shared that today she wears two hearing aids and lip reads, but still has difficulty at times hearing and understanding what is communicated orally, although she has been wearing hearing aids for 40 years.
At the assembly at SES, Bell asked students to conduct an experiment with her so that they could see just how powerful her hearing aids are and how much difference they make in her life.
She turned her back on the audience and had them shout “Halloween” with her hearing aids in and then out to demonstrate the point that she was totally deaf without them. They are small devices but powerful.
Bell described her current hearing aids as tiny computers. Although she wears the hearing aids, she still relies to a great extent on lip-reading.
She says that lip reading is hard because many words sound alike and look alike when lip reading—like the words “bear” and “pear.” The letters “p” and “b” look the same on the lips so the lip reader can’t just rely on watching the speaker’s mouth, but must take the context of the situation into account. Is the conversation happening in a grocery store where “pear” is more likely being used? She did some quick sketches to illustrate her point.
Another disadvantage of lip reading is that the hard of hearing person needs to be facing the lip reader for understanding to occur. Bell described the problem of sleepovers as a child where conversations among friends happened in the dark.
Bell is funny in person and her book is funny. She said she is not a maudlin person. She chooses to look on the bright side and there are many humorous things that happen with her equipment and with misunderstanding what people are saying. She wants people to learn that with a disability, “it’s not all bad.” You just have to look for the humor.
Her message to the SES students was that “If you face some type of challenges, those will become your superpowers when you grow up.”
Bell told the students that she gets most of her ideas for books on walks with her dogs. An idea pops into her head; she writes it down on a slip of paper and saves it in a drawer until she needs a new inspiration.
She has several new books in the works and just finished her second “Rabbit and Robot” book. She has illustrated an Inspector Flytrap book for her husband, about a mystery-solving Venus flytrap. They live with their children near Virginia Tech.
Both travel the country doing presentations on their books. Both focus on helping children who feel different find a path to acceptance of themselves and acceptance by others.
“If you feel different than everyone else, that’s your superpower,” said Bell. “How unique, fun, and awesome you are!”