‘El Deafo’ Catched On TV Thanks to the Imagination of Montgomery County Writer Cece Bell | Books

Ralph Berrier Jr. Special at the Roanoke Times

Superhero Cece climbs from page to screen – her cape is flowing, her hearing aids firmly attached to her long bunny ears, and her incredible powerful phonic ear strapped to her chest.

“El Deafo,” a three-part animated series based on Cece Bell’s popular illustrated children’s book, airs on the Apple TV streaming service on January 7. The show adapts the Bell Story, which is a mostly autobiographical graphic novel about going deaf and going to school in Salem in the 1970s. The 2014 book won a Newbery Honor, one of top prizes in children’s literature.

Bell, who lives in Montgomery County, is a co-writer and executive producer on the television series, which has been in the works for three years.

“It’s basically a new narration for the book,” with a few details tweaked here and there, Bell said in a Zoom Before Christmas interview. As one of the show’s three executive producers, Bell had the final say on the story and appearance of the characters.

“It really has to look like the book,” she told her staff.

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“El Deafo” received critical acclaim and became a hit with readers when published by Harry N. Abrams in 2014. The story, told in comic book-style illustrated panels, featured a character named Cece, unsurprisingly, who happens to be a cute bunny who is losing his hearing and has to wear a latest generation hearing aid dubbed the phonic ear. Cece the bunny imagines that the speech ear – which is basically a box she carries that connects to her hearing aids – gives her superpowers, so she comes up with the nickname El Deafo.

Bell said she created the character as a human-like rabbit because the long ears showcase the hearing aids and wires better.

The story is about growing up, sleepovers, first loves and integrating, and how difficult it can all be for a deaf child, even with an active imagination like Cece.

The Apple TV series came about after Bell got a call from Will McRobb, a producer whose credits include the beloved 1990s Nickelodeon show “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” and the new animated Apple TV. from Louise Fitzhugh’s classic, “Harriet the Spy. “

Shortly after the book’s release, Bell and McRobb started working with Amazon Prime Video on a series, but the project fell through. About three years ago, McRobb contacted Bell again after switching to Apple TV. Tara Sorenson, who had worked at Amazon before becoming head of children’s programming at Apple, also believed in the concept of bringing “El Deafo” to television.

“I was already a fan of Will McRobb, a huge fan,” Bell said. “His son had read the book and recommended it to Will. He asked me if I was interested [in a TV show], and I said, “Sure, maybe!”

The animation was handled by Lighthouse Studios based in Kilkenny, Ireland, run by Gilly Fogg, who is the director of the series.

The creators of the series visited Salem before the pandemic for a tour of some of the sites mentioned in the book – such as the former Academy Street Elementary School (now City Hall) and the Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy.

Cece is voiced by newcomer Lexi Finigan, who is deaf and uses cochlear implants to hear, Bell said. A child who voices a younger version of the character is also deaf. (“I made sure the performance was well done,” Bell said.) Additional vocals include those provided by Jane Lynch (“Glee,” “Best in Show” and dozens of other credits) and Pamela Adlon ( “Better Things” on FX).

Bell, 51, recounts the series, after recording her narration during a one-day session at her home using software provided by the production team.

In fact, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bell has done most of his TV work from home – watching animation, editing stories, meeting via Zoom, and handling other tasks. . Because “El Deafo” is animated and didn’t require the actors to perform on set, the actors and crew could work remotely. This turned out to be a boon for Bell, who describes himself as “such a homebody”.

Plus, a teleconference meeting – where everyone’s face is on the computer screen and staring straight at you – made it easier for her to catch what people were saying. Bell, who lost his hearing at the age of 4 after contracting meningitis, has long relied on reading people’s lips as one of his most effective methods of communication.

Even though she had a lot of creative control over the show (“I did a lot of ‘redrawing. I would say,’ The character should look like this. ‘”), She had to allow changes from her original story. . For example, his book is filled with references to pop culture from the 1970s and before, from “The Waltons” to the Beatles to “Batman”. The rights to broadcast some of these songs or older TV shows were too big for the show’s budget.

“I had to give up some funny things,” she said. “I had a lot of trouble with that at first. A lot of things that I love aren’t on the show. But once I do the fantastic ‘El Deafo’ sequences [in the series] are much funnier than what I found in the book, I understood it. It took a long time to realize that this is not the book, it is different.

“At the end, [the changes] make it a better experience for kids watching today, ”who might not have the old pop culture references.

Still, most of the characters and the plot will be familiar to readers who enjoy the book, she said.

The show features quite a bit of original music, including songs written and performed by Waxahatchee, Katie Crutchfield’s predominantly one-person independent music project. The Alabama native has written original songs for the series, including the single “Tomorrow” and Bell’s personal favorite, “Trampoline Love Song”.

The instrumental score for the series was composed by Michael Andrews, a musician and writer who has composed music for the cult TV show “Freaks and Geeks” and for a host of films that include “Bridesmaids” and “Donnie Darko” , who produced a successful alt-rock in 2003 with his piano cover of “Mad World” by Tears for Fears.

A unique facet of the TV series is the way it shows how hard it is for Cece to hear. Some sounds are muffled and scrambled, and other sounds are silenced. Bell said sound designers at E2, who have worked on many major films including “A Quiet Place” and “Disney’s Jungle Cruise,” have been tasked with the counterintuitive job of making things sometimes bad.

“The audio had to be from my point of view,” Bell said. “Sometimes it’s silent when people look away, or it’s scrambled. It can even be shocking. It was hard to get a deaf person to explain what things are like without knowing if it sounded right. [The sound designers] should take their wonderful sound and make it sound like garbage.

Bell, a mother of two and married to famous children’s author and illustrator Tom Angleberger, had put aside other projects while working on the “El Deafo” series. She is currently working on a new children’s book and she envisioned a sequel to “El Deafo,” which was one of the reasons the Amazon Prime Video project failed. Amazon wanted to retain the rights to potential future works, she said.

She had never expected “El Deafo” to grow so huge, even inspiring a TV series, but because the story was her most personal, she was happy when she was connected with readers, and now viewers. .

“I knew when I was writing it that it was a project that came very naturally,” she said. “I guess these are the most successful ones.”

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