Kent State Alumna Awarded Newbery Honor
Author and illustrator Cece Bell received a Newbery Honor for her most recent publication and first graphic novel, El Deafo, where she shares her experiences with hearing loss at a young age. El Deafo is only the second graphic novel to receive a Newbery Honor.
“For years, I'd been entertaining friends with some of the funnier stories about hearing loss,” said Bell, who became deaf at the age of four and a half after suffering from meningitis. “I got so many big laughs that I knew the material could work well as a book. When I saw the middle-grade graphic novel Smile by Raina Telgemeier, I realized that a graphic novel could be an amazing format for the story.”
Awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, the Newbery Honor characterizes a book as a “distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
“The Newbery Honor means that the book is going to be in a lot of school libraries, and therefore a lot of kids who might need and benefit from the book are more likely to read it,” Bell said.
Bell’s other publications were also successful, such as Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover, which won the Geisel Honor Award in 2013. However, Bell credits her success and skills to Kent State University's Visual Communication Design Master of Arts graduate program, where she received her M.A. degree in 1998.
“It was amazing being surrounded by people who were interested in the same things I was interested in, and who really respected the stuff I was making,” Bell said, “The program was tough and thickened my skin considerably.”
Jerry Kalback, an emeritus professor of the School of Visual Communication Design at Kent State, greatly influenced Bell’s education and remembered when Bell applied for the graduate program.
“I was so impressed with her work,” Kalback said. “I just looked at her file and said I’ll take her.”
During Bell’s time at Kent State, she and Kalback created a lasting friendship as he mentored her and helped refine her illustration skills.
“Almost every piece she did stuck out because she has a real individual voice,” Kalback said. “She had so many thoughts; I bet she could have sold some of her ideas to the other students.”
When Kalback learned of Bell’s Newbery Honor, he said he felt very proud of Bell and admired her hard work.
“My gosh, that book was so well written it doesn’t surprise me she got it,” Kalback said. “For an artist to carry artistic quality and creative concept through pages like she did, it’s just unbelievable.”
Kalback said that he and Bell continue to stay in contact and talk on a regular basis. Over the years, Bell also stayed connected to the university.
She returned once to teach a workshop about creating children’s books and approaching publishers and again to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award.
AnnMarie LeBlanc, interim dean of the College of Communication and Information at Kent State, said she sees Bell’s accomplishment as a “testimony to the quality of the program.”
“Cece takes her profession very seriously, but she has an amazing sense of humor. She makes people feel comfortable in her presence, and I feel that when I open up one of her books as well,” LeBlanc said.
Through El Deafo, Bell said she wants to teach her readers that people with disabilities are not as different as society makes them seem.
“People who might have disabilities are actually just like everyone else, with the same hopes and desires and frustrations,” Bell said. “Sometimes the frustrations might be bigger, but they're still essentially the same.”