El Deafo – Cece Bell’s superhero, airborne with a red cape and, do our eyes deceive us, wearing a hearing aid? This is a graphic novel to make a reader soar.
El Deafo, as any reader can tell from its cover, is a graphic novel. What do we see on the cover? A girl flying. A girl wearing a red cape. A girl wearing some sort of small package hanging from her chest. Look closely. Two wires are coming out of the package: one wire appears to be attached to one of the girl’s ears, the other wire, floating behind the girl, spells out the words El Deafo, and, if we look more closely, at the end of that wire is something that looks like a plug. Maybe that plug should be inside the other ear. Well, usually little girls can’t fly, and she is wearing a cape, so the logical conclusion is that she must be a SUPERHERO! Calling a superhero El Deafo seems cruel until we read the book.
The little girl’s name in El Deafo is Cece Bell, just like the author’s. Is this book a novel or a memoir? It is both. In the author’s own words: “El Deafo is a graphic novel based on my childhood experiences with hearing loss and hearing aids.”
Cece is four years old when she contracts meningitis, which results in a profound hearing loss. Cece’s imaginative superhero, El Deafo, helps her cope with the loneliness she experiences, and with how her hearing loss affects her ability to find friends in a world where she believes she never quite fits. El Deafo’s self-confidence helps Cece imagine how she might respond each time she feels overwhelmed by her disability.
Cece is lucky to have loving parents who never stop paying attention. But her older siblings have as much to learn about deafness and hearing losses as those who read El Deafo. And believe me, there is much to learn.
The edition of Bell’s book that I was given is the Superpowered Edition, which includes a supplement with a wealth of personal information (even family pictures!) and general information about hearing loss. Not every hearing loss is deafness. Bell tells us about those who are born deaf, those who lose hearing through an accident or illness, and those whose hearing loss is gradual. The supplementary information about how those with hearing loss navigate the world–lip reading, sign language, and Deaf culture, is woven into Cece’s story itself.
In addition, she shares details about all the work that goes into creating a graphic novel. The color artist, David Lasky, plays a major role in El Deafo’s” success (a Newberry Honor Book).
Bell’s book was gifted to me by my daughter who, as an adult, loves graphic novels, and whose mother has a profound hearing loss. My loss was diagnosed back in 1977, one year after the development of the Phonic Ear, which allowed Cece’s teachers to wear a device (like a mic) that directed their voices directly into Cece’s hearing aids. This made an enormous difference in Cece’s school success. If we adults think back to our youth, even if we were in perfect health, we can remember that being a kid is not easy. Throw in anything, real or imagined, that makes a kid feel like they do not belong, and nobody can possibly understand why — well, that’s what Bell’s book addresses. Her “anything” happens to be a hearing loss.
El Deafo is marketed to children from eight to twelve years old, and grade levels from third to seventh. I so disagree. This book should be read by EVERYBODY. It does not matter how old you were when you were diagnosed with a hearing loss, profound or not so profound, every page of Cece’s story will touch you. And if your hearing is perfect, but you are friends with, or, are related to, a hearing-impaired person, you must read El Deafo.
Those of us who wear hearing aids, whether we have had them for years or just more recently, can learn from El Deafo how not to be fearful about telling those around us to look up and not down when speaking, to try and remember not to put their hand in front of their mouths when talking. Hearing loss does not require others to speak loudly or slowly. And we should not shy away from new streaming devices that allow us to hear, directly into our hearing aids, our radios, TVs, music, or cell phones. If we worry that the technology is beyond us, any reputable audiology practice will walk us through it. If worse comes to worst, we can always ask our grandchildren. Trust me, they will be happy to help, although remember to take notes and write down every step.
I cannot recommend El Deafo strongly enough. I am hoping Bell will write a follow-up memoir as she grows older. Many of those feelings of isolation experienced by a little girl in this graphic novel are relevant at any age. – Sunny Solomon
Outside link: https://cecebell.wordpress.com/
Also available by Cece Bell: I Yam a Donkey; Rabbit & Robot and R&R The Sleepover; Inspector Flytrap (with Tom Angleberger); Inspector Flytrap, The Goat Who Chewed Too Much: and The President’s Mane Is Missing; Chuck and Woodchuck; Crankee Doodle (with Tom Angleberger); Bug Patrol (Denise Dowling Mortensen); Bee Wigged; Itty Bitty; Food Friends: Busy Buddies.
Bookin’ with Sunny strongly supports Independent Bookstores and Public Libraries.