Putting books in children’s hands

- Local author Cece Bell leads a Roanoke College class on a tour of downtown Salem, which began outside of her childhood home on Broad Street. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
– Local author Cece Bell leads a Roanoke College class on a tour of downtown Salem, which began outside of her childhood home on Broad Street. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
Cece Bell grew up on Broad Street in Salem.

Now, as a distinguished author, her childhood home sets the scene for her children’s books.

Mary Hill, an English professor at Roanoke College, went to high school with Bell, and the two are old friends. Hill teaches children’s literature at the college, and she recently assigned her class Bell’s work.

“The students were very impressed by how much detail went into the illustrations for ‘El Deafo,’” Hill said. “They got a sense of the attention and care Cece took in creating her story. This is a book that will be a classic of children’s literature for years to come.”

Last Wednesday, the class met Bell, and embarked on a walking tour of downtown Salem with her. Bell kicked off the tour at the big white house with a bright red roof, which is chockfull of memories for her.

“There’s something truly special that happens when students are able to interact with an author,” Hill said. “The whole experience was even more extraordinary for us, though, because instead of having the author come to us, we were able to go to her.”

Bell shared stories of her youth, and pointed out landmarks that inspired her writing, such as Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy, which is locally famous for its limeades. Bell is hearing impaired, and because of that, has a unique perspective on the world, which she captured in her book, “El Deafo,” which she wrote and illustrated. She won both the Newbery and Eisner medals her book.

When she was in elementary school, she relied on a phonic hearing aid, which she said caused her feelings of isolation. In the book, which is told from the perspective of a rabbit, but loosely based on real life events, the main character comes to see her hearing aid as a superpower.

“’El Deafo’ would definitely be a memoir,” Bell said. “Everything that happened in the book is true. Every individual incident is true. However, I switched the order of things a little bit to make a better story.”

Bell also explained how she decides what type of medium to tell her stories through.

“The weirder ideas usually end up being picture books,” Bell said. “The weirder the idea, the better. I make the decision to try to teach the kids to read with the early readers…you’re thinking about your audience. “

Hill also wanted to use Bell’s visit as a way to kick off the college’s “Books on Buses” program, which advocates childhood literacy. Roanoke College has teamed with Roanoke City Libraries through the “Star City Reads” initiative to place books on Valley Metro bus lines for families to read together as they commute. Since June, over 1,000 books have been placed on buses. Hill said that in less fortunate communities, sometimes there is only one book per 300 children.

“Childhood literacy is tremendously important, and we’re really excited that we can help get books into the hands of the children in our community who need them most,” Hill said.

To help with the cause, visit http://www.gofundme.com/booksonbuses.

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