Dick and Jane may be rolling over in their literary graves at the notion of a beginning reader about a (mostly) dim-witted, boxers-wearin’ dude named Brain, who is eager for others to smell his foot. But hey, it’s the 21st century. And hey, it’s also the award-winning author-illustrator Cece Bell, who consistently brings the laughs. In Smell My Foot!, the kick-off to her new Chick and Brain series, we meet Brain and his friends—Chick, who insists on politeness (okay, Dick and Jane would approve of this), and Spot the dog, who likes the way Chick smells and extends an invitation for lunch. Uh oh. Expect side-splitting laughs from the beginning readers you know who pick this one up.
I talked to Cece via email about the new book, crafting the language, and why cartoon art is the perfect match for such books.
Jules: Cece! Hi!
Chick and ... Brain. I love it. Tell me how a slow-witted (but lovable) dude whose ginormous brain sits atop his head came to your own brain. (Of course, he's not THAT dim-witted, since he saves Chick’s life and all.)
Cece: Jules! Hello!
Well, the idea came to me when I was re-reading some Dick and Jane books and giggling over how ridiculous their language sounds when it's read out loud. Believe it or not, these were the books that taught me how to read! So, when I start working on a book, I usually don't think about whether or not I'm actually helping kids learn to read. I'm generally kind of selfish and end up making whatever book I want to make. But this time I thought it would be fun to make something that really could help kids with reading. Using Dick and Jane as a starting point, I came up with Chick and Brain. (It rhymes. Get it, Jules? Do you get it???)
Jules: [pckheeeeow] That tiny explosion was my brain just now making that connection. Nice touch, you.
Cece: Brain really evolved a bunch in the beginning. His earlier form was a bit—ahem—phallic (just quoting my editors here; I am 100% pure, hee hee), so I made him rounder and fatter. He also had briefs for a while, but round shape + briefs = Captain Underpants. (All hail the wonderful Dav Pilkey, master of the comics form and beyond.) So, I switched the briefs to boxers (this is starting to sound like Bill Clinton's famous MTV interview) and added the hearts, and voila! A Brain was born. I think his personality sort of just came out of the organic writing process that happens for me when I make comics. He is dim-witted, for sure, but he's sometimes surprisingly perceptive. Which might be an apt description of me on any given day.
Jules: I have to say that, when I first read this book, I laughed out loud (and knew I was about to be entertained mightily) when on the Contents page Chick says: "Hello, Brain." And Brain says, "Yeah. I know." Did that joke—and that aspect of Brain's personality (his high levels of self-confidence, I guess you could call it)—come to you immediately? I don't want to dive too far into analyzing humor, because ... blech. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that, if that came to you immediately, you are a very funny person.
Cece:Brain had a lot of that self-confidence from the get-go, yes. But in the first versions of the book, his response to Chick's multiple hellos was simply, "Yeah." Like this:
Chick: Hello, Brain.
My amazing editor, Sarah Ketchersid (and I do mean amazing), felt like those “yeahs” needed something more. So I added the "I know" to each “yeah,” and Brain's personality really firmed up. That's the cool thing about writing. Just adding two words—only five letters, really—and blam! A personality is formed! I mean, check it out:
Chick: Hello, Brain.
Brain: Yeah. I know.
It's so much clearer who Brain is. That's what the great editors do.
Jules: This isn’t your first beginning reader series (I’m waving to Rabbit and Robot), though I noticed the publisher is calling this a “graphic reader.” (I can’t keep up with labels anymore.) What are some of the joys and challenges of writing and illustrating stories for those first learning to read?
Cece:"Graphic reader," hee. That word (“graphic”) is so loaded. We know in kid lit that it means comics, but on TV and in the movies it means something entirely different. "This movie is rated R for graphic content." I always wish we could come up with a better name for our graphic novels, readers, etc. Comic novel? Panelized reader? Speech Bubble Bauble with Words?
Anyway, to actually answer your question: I love writing beginning reader series. I think they fit my writing and illustrating style, and the way my mind works, to a T. I have a pretty bad case of echolalia, which annoys everyone in real life but is perfect for writing beginning readers. That echolalia = all that repetition in beginning readers; it's the repetition that teaches kids to read. I love trying to come up with new and increasingly complex ways to say the same thing. There's sometimes even a poetry to it all. The main challenge for me is probably in keeping the words simple; the Rabbit and Robot books have a few difficult words thrown in, but I made every effort to keep the language of Chick and Brain as simple as it is in the Dick and Jane books. Except I think Dick and Jane would never say "yeah" or "I can't." They'd say "yes" or "I cannot." Now I'm cracking up picturing Dick saying to Jane, "I cannot smell your foot." Those crazy kids were so sophisticated!
I think my illustrations are also best suited for this type of book. As hard as I might try to make my illustrations cross over into that realm of "art" (art = Keats' A Snowy Day; Provensens' Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm; Robinson's illustrations for Gaston), my illustrations for my picture books tend to remain firmly in the—I dunno—more cartoon realm? But cartoons are clear, and that clarity is often exactly right for beginning readers. Beginning readers are workhorses with a different purpose from picture books, I think. Which isn't to say that they can't be art. The Little Bear series is art! I'm headed down a slippery slope. But hopefully you know what I mean!
Jules: I completely understand what you mean.
As you know, I’ve researched the life and work of James Marshall, and he evidently hated it when a reviewer referred to his art as "cartoon" or "cartoon-style." That’s so interesting to me, because I love to see illustrators using that style. I think, though, that perhaps Marshall felt frustrated in general about how critics responded to his work. He also hated his art being described as “zany,” and I think that it’s safe to say he felt funny books were underappreciated. So, maybe his aversion to his work being described as “cartoony” is related to that. Also, it was a different time, when cartoon art may have been more associated with “low art,” yet today we are living in a sort of golden age for comics, cartoon art, etc. All that’s to say: I’m glad to see you embracing it.
Cece: Yes, I do embrace cartoon art. It's is such a versatile medium and a pretty perfect medium for storytelling, in particular. And look how its clarity helps so many young readers, especially the ones who had struggled with reading until they found that first graphic novel that spoke to them! Amazing.
But I also understand Marshall's resistance to that term. I used to prickle at it, too. I may be making this up, but I vaguely remember reading that Maurice Sendak was a fan of Marshall's, and that he said of Marshall's work something along the lines of "he puts so much more work into those little drawings than people realize."
Jules: Yes, it’s true!
Cece: I feel like the same is true of my work. It looks so simple, but I agonize over each line. The piles of paper I generate—whew. All that work just to get a facial expression or movement just right! You'd be surprised how frustrated I can get. But when a drawing is successful, what a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
Jules: Thanks for chatting with me, Cece. This is my final Kirkus column, after about nine years of blogging here, and I’m so happy it’s a chat with you.
And I’m excited about the further adventures of Chick and Brain. I’m looking forward to finding out what Brain wants us to smell next (not a sentence I thought I’d type today).
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
CHICK AND BRAIN: SMELL MY FOOT. Copyright © 2019 by Cece Bell. Spread above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.