El Deafo

El Deafo cover

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 cover

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.


  • Simon

    (I found back my comment from before your site crash: I wouldn’t bother to repost if not for the fact this online sample could be useful to others!)

    I passed this up when it was solicited (I think they lost me at “superpowers”, heh) but your review made me look it up again, especially as I liked Telgemeier’s SMILE. The Abrams/Amulet page didn’t have samples, but I found a deaf-culture merchant with a 20-page preview (12MB PDF) at http://www.harriscomm.com/el-deafo-cece-bell.html and that clinched it. Thanks!

    (P.S.: And it’s relisted in April’s Previews, yay!)

  • I appreciate you sharing that again, thank you!

  • Simon

    I’ve now received and read it. Not only it’s as interesting a memoir as you described it, but I’d like to add how funny it can also be at times. (Not that the rest is bleak, as there’s neither pathos nor self-pity, just some PEANUTS-level angst.)

    For instance, after showing us how she needs to complement her hearing aid with lip-reading and body language, she reviews the various ways some TV shows can be a challenge. The whole chapter is instructive and funny (well, to us), topped by the Star Trek panel where Cute Rabbit Spock is under an arrow captioned, “emotionless MUMBLER!!” (p. 80)

    (As for “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”, you also have Liz Prince’s nice graphic memoir TOMBOY!)

    Sorry for something different, but a boring non-comics P.S.:

    Just FYI, these last few weeks it’s not been possible to post on your site for security-minded folks like me. The “Comment” field was topped by the warning “Please enable JavaScript to make a form submission” (and trying to post anyway didn’t work).

    Of course, it probably means that most people could still comment — just not those who avoid the security dangers of unchecked Flash and JavaScript in the browser.

    (These days, JavaScript is enabled by default in most browsers, since their makers derive money from harvesting people’s data, doubly so when the NSA pays them for it, as evidenced in the Snowden files. And on top of that, it makes browsers a bit slower and crashy.)

    But my point was: before recently, comments were possible to all, and then it changed. Maybe you enabled some new “security” feature, or maybe your hosting service did something in your back?

    If you were swamped in comment spam and had to enable it, I understand — but in case you didn’t know it or its side effects, I’m posting this just to let you know. (Yes, I also drastically limit who I email to. Nothing personal.)

    Anyway, today I’ve noticed the “old” comment form at the bottom of a new article, so I rushed back to this one to paste and post what I couldn’t last week. (For all I know today’s a lucky fluke.)

    Sorry for the tech rambling; if it’s out of your hands, so it goes.

  • Tech answer: Yes, I was getting hundreds of spam comments a day, so much so that my new host was threatening to disable me for too much CPU usage. So I put a rather drastic blocker in a couple of months ago, and I’ve been fine-tuning the settings since then. Thank you for providing your experience, and I’m glad it’s now working for you again.

  • Simon

    Thanks for answering. For what it’s worth, the best anti-spam for comments seems to be the non-JavaScript CAPTCHA (the wiggly letters you have to retype).

    For instance on Wikipedia or Google, that’s what they use for verification, and it just works. (As opposed to JavaScript-based CAPTCHA, which is what I suppose your blocker is activating.)

    Also, some systems only trigger the CAPTCHA after you try to post and something was detected (such as web links or spammy words), displaying an intermediate screen to validate the post. (Your current system, when triggered, is applied even before we have typed or tried to post anything.)

    I can’t provide precise references, but considering that both Wikipedia and Google use their own free open-source CAPTCHA module that anyone can freely re-use, it’s a fair bet that many developers must have swiped them to wrap into WordPress extensions, and some may even be free.

    (Whether it’s available or convenient for your setup is another matter, of course. Just another tool to consider!)

  • I really hate CAPTCHAs, which is why I’ve resisted turning on that part of the spam blocker. But thank you for the education about them. How much the internet has changed over the years!

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