The important question when growing comic readers is “what do I read next?” Back in the mid-1980s, in the first graphic novel boom, the appeal of comic-format books faltered because, after Maus, there was little else with the same literary goals and high quality and diverse storytelling. People who loved it had nothing else to go on with, nothing else to build that habit of thinking of comics as a medium instead of just the superhero genre.
Nowadays, there are award-winning graphic novels everywhere, a glorious thing, particularly when it comes to kids’ books. El Deafo, for example, would be a wonderful next choice for someone who loved the graphic memoir Smile. Both are simply (but cleverly) illustrated stories of the struggles of a girl in middle school, looking to make friends and find her place while dealing with a visual difference from the others.
El Deafo is Cece Bell’s autobiographical story of being hearing impaired after a childhood bout with meningitis. She goes to school with a receiver hung around her neck, wires connecting it to the pieces in her ears, and a microphone to give to her teacher, so she can directly hear what the instructor is saying. This “phonic ear” makes it possible for her to interact with others, but she’s embarrassed about what the kids will think of her with this gear.
She frequently fantasizes about her difference making her better, with superhero interludes that demonstrate how powerful that metaphor can be in accepting and valuing what makes her unique. The phonic ear means she can actually hear things others can’t, as the teachers don’t take off the microphone when they leave the classroom. As she thinks, “superheroes might be awesome, but they are also different”, with an image of a lonely Batman, back turned to us. It’s a multi-layered comparison that gives her comfort and symbolizes her feelings.
Bell’s characters are all rabbits, an intelligent choice. The way the ears come out the top of the head foregrounds her concern about how visible the wires to her hearing aids are, while making the characters more universal (and cute). For a story about the function of ears, it’s a good idea to have characters with prominent ones.
Bell walks the reader through the process of becoming acclimated to her new challenges. The character Cece is fitted for hearing aids, worries about what her friends will think, struggles with comprehension, learns to lip-read, moves to a new neighborhood, and tries to make friends. These other girls — and one guy crush — treat her in different ways, each giving more insight into how Cece works through her relationships. While her mom tries to tell her that “special” is good, Cece worries that “special” means “weird”. Beyond her impairment, any kid can identify with that feeling.
Along the way we get clever visual indicators of how the world sounds to her now, with phonetic spellings giving the reader more sympathy for the experience and blank word balloons indicating her inability to hear. It’s a simple device, but a potent one, and a bit scary. There’s a significant sequence where she explains the steps of figuring out what people are saying with lip-reading that provides an important lesson in how to interact with deaf people to the reader.
Much of her storytelling is conventionally straightforward, showing Cece at home, in the neighborhood, and at school, but her occasional use of metaphorical panels really opens up the book, as when she, in a class of other young deaf students, strides across the cosmos as she narrates how “we are lost, drifting along on our own planets. But we are together in the same universe, at least!”
It is no surprise to me that this won the John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature. It’s a comfortable book, providing insight into an experience many haven’t thought about in a way that creates empathy and understanding. It can easily be underestimated, seeming to have been simple to create but with real depth in the choices made and the techniques used.