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ceceafterby Cece Bell

Several years ago I was at a really low point in my career as a children’s book author and illustrator. None of my published books seemed to be doing all that well, and every new book I submitted seemed to get rejected. I was stuck. My writing came to a standstill. I didn’t even want to draw anymore! Good grief!

Eventually, I got off my pity pot by realizing that I didn’t have to get a publisher interested in my stories and drawings in order to work. I just needed to start working again—for FUN, not profit. So I decided to hire myself. Here was the assignment: Ask friends and family for adjectives and names of animals. Write adjectives on separate slips of paper. Fold them up and put them in a cup. Write names of animals on other separate slips of paper. Fold them up and put them in a different cup.

Now for the good part: Each day, for over one hundred days (and I didn’t skip any days, not even weekends), I selected a slip of paper from the adjective cup, and I selected a slip of paper from the animal cup. What I selected was what I had to draw—in no more than two hours. I couldn’t put anything back and hope to get a “better” combination—all combinations were good. The more challenging, the better!

I ended up with pairings like “victorious chinchilla” and “lost ocelot.” “Glittery manatee” and “theiving sloth.” “Bashful anteater” and “uncomfortable ostrich.” “Maniacal anemone!” It was great fun to illustrate all these animals I didn’t normally draw; it was especially fun to come up with stories (not written, but implied in the illustration) for why the chinchilla was victorious, for why the ostrich was uncomfortable. And what would the sloth steal?








I was a cheap boss. I didn’t pay myself a cent. But the rewards of my little project were copious. My brain loosened up. I learned some new illustration techniques. I began to love being an illustrator again. I GOT OUT OF THAT FUNK. And guess what? When I decided to submit “mustachioed fly” to my agent to turn into postcards, I got hired to illustrate Diane Mortensen’s picture book Bug Patrol for Clarion. This job led to a relationship with Clarion that made my picture book with Tom Angleberger (Crankee Doodle) possible, and then that helped me loosen up to do El Deafo. Now I’ve got more work than I can shake a stick at!

My little project was focused on illustration—but it could work for writing, too. TOTALLY!

So, my humble two cents (I happen to have those cents because I didn’t pay myself earlier, remember?) is that if you pursue this line of work—or any line of work—do so because you love it. Try not to lose sight of that love. And hopefully, that love, plus a lot of hard work and little bit of luck, will get you where you want to be.


eldeafoCece Bell lives in an old church with her husband, author Tom Angleberger, and she works right next door in a new-ish barn. El Deafo, her first graphic novel, is a slightly fictionalized memoir about her childhood, her hearing loss, her first crush, and her quest for a true friend. She has written and illustrated other books for children, including the Geisel Honor book Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover; Itty Bitty; Bee-Wigged; and the Sock Monkey series. You can read more about her at Follow along on Twitter @cecebellbooks.


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