Allison's Book Bag

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Posted on: October 7, 2014

Before Cece Bell wrote El Deafo, she established herself as an author and illustrator in her own right. Only after doing this did Bell write her memoir, which tells her story of growing up severely to profoundly deaf. Even then, Bell still contemplated how best to tell her unique story. For example, according to Book Page, Bell deliberately picked the medium of a graphic novel because “… graphic novels tell so much of the story using speech balloons. What better way to show what I am hearing—or even better, what I am not hearing—than speech balloons?” El Deafo is a funny and touching story, which should connect with others whose experiences were similar to Bell but also have universal appeal.

One typical way for an author to feature a character with a disability is to have that character be the new kid. This situation naturally leads to peers having questions and inappropriate reactions. Bullies might even surface. While Bell does employ this format, she also goes beyond it. Yes, when Cece enrolls for the first time in public school, there are questions about Cece’s hearing aid along with inappropriate reactions such as talking louder or turning up the volume on the television. There’s also a short-lived example of a bully who breaks her hearing aid. But the majority of Bell’s story centers around friendship. How should she relate to the girl who wants to be friends but only if in charge? Or how should she relate to the girl who wants to be friends but only because Cece is different? And how should she regain friendship with the girl who seems like a kindred spirit but then stops hanging around after an accident? Bell’s story even includes some romance, where Cece experiences typical adolescent reactions of shyness and infatuation. How will she overcome these to develop a meaningful relationship with the boy next door whom she really likes?

A more current trend for showcasing a character with a disability is to bestow that character with super powers. Bell again employs this format, but with her own unique twist. With her Phonic Ear, Cece can hear her teacher not only in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school—in the hallway, in the teacher’s lounge, and even in the bathroom! Cece is on her way to becoming a superhero, to being El Deafo, but sometimes being a superhero is another way of being different … or another way of being lonely. The advertising for El Deafo ramps up this aspect of Bell’s graphic novel, no doubt to cater to audiences who are familiar with Rick Riordian’s Percy Jackson and The Olympian series and other similar superhero books. My main concern about this advertising is that readers might feel disappointed when they realize that the first half of El Deafo has very little to do with Cece’s “powers” and so give up an otherwise highly enjoyable and educational graphic novel.

A third way for an author to include a character with a disability, and in my mind the best way, is to integrate them into a plot which draws upon that character’s unique differences while also telling a universal story. A title which jumps to my mind is The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night by Mark Haddon, which is narrated by a 15-year-old boy who is labeled by the book’s blurb as having Aspergers. The novel succeeds so well I think because it’s not just a book about Aspergers or just a mystery, but instead it’s a well-written blend of the two. Bell in her Author’s Note writes that people can become deaf in many ways and can choose how to handle their deafness in many ways. For example, her having been able to hear before being struck with meningitis meant her parents were able to make decisions to keep her mostly in the hearing world. Obviously then, El Deafo is in no way a factual account of what all deaf people will experience. Yet it is a representation of Bell’s emotions as a kid who grew up hearing impaired. The result is a graphic novel which isn’t just about deafness or isn’t just the account of the confusing world of relationships, but instead a well-written blend of the two.

Bell shared with Washington Post that she has heard from kids like her who use a hearing aid, but also kids with other disabilities, and even those who don’t have special needs. All of them write that her story resonates with them. This doesn’t surprise me. By putting first the goal of writing an entertaining story, but then also drawing on her unique experiences, Bell has written a fascinating story to which all of us will connect on some level.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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