“When cartoonist Bell was four years old, a case of meningitis left her severely deaf. In this graphic memoir, she tells readers about the friends and family who help her adjust, the frustration she feels when learning to communicate, and the devices she uses to assist her hearing, most notably the Phonic Ear, a large machine that connects to a microphone her teachers wear and amplifies sounds in her hearing aids. Aside from making school easier, the Phonic Ear gives Bell a superpower: when her teachers forget to doff the microphone, she can still hear them anywhere in the school (including the bathroom!). She keeps her newfound superpower a secret and daydreams about being El Deafo, a super alter ego whose deafness makes her powerful. Bell’s bold and blocky full-color cartoons perfectly complement her childhood stories-she often struggles to fit in and sometimes experiences bullying, but the cheerful illustrations promise a sunny future” (Hunter, 2014).
In this auto-biographical graphic novel, Cece Bell recounts her experiences growing up deaf in a world full of peers who can hear. This colorful memoir chronicles her journey as she learns to lip-read, adjusts to her Phonic Ear (a device that helps her hear her teachers better in school), and tries to navigate the tricky world of friendship. Through it all, she imagines herself as “El Deafo,” a superhero whose Phonic Ear gives her super hearing abilities. El Deafo is funny, touching, and inspiring, and is an anthem for children everywhere who might feel just a little bit different.
While I would consider myself a fan of manga (which is a form of Japanese comic book that is read from back to front), I’ve never found an American graphic novel that has really captured my interest. My issue with graphic novels, in general (manga included), is that they’re often very pricey and too quick to end (I can usually get through them in an hour or two). I can certainly appreciate the artistry and work that goes into them, but it’s hard for them to keep my interest because of their quick, easy-to-read nature. That being said, I did enjoy El Deafo, mostly because I found it to be a cute, touching story. If you’ll remember, my last post was a review of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir that made me re-evaluate my opinion of non-fiction. While this book was obviously written for a much younger audience (and features stylized cartoon illustrations of Bell and her friends), El Deafo presented another interesting memoir that made me realize how much I enjoy this genre.
Young fans of graphic novels are sure to love this book, as it’s full of fun illustrations and is really easy to read. The story is nice and simple, perfect for reluctant readers who prefer graphic novels over long novels with no pictures. I would also use this book in either a library or classroom setting to initiate a discussion about bullying, as it is a perfect example of how being understanding (instead of judgmental) can entirely change someone’s worldview. One of the most wonderful things about it, in my opinion, is that it teaches children to be tolerant of those who are different without sounding preachy; it’s simply told from the point-of-view of someone who happens to have a disability. This is the second book I’ve ever read told from the point-of-view of a child with a disability (the first being Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, in which the main character has dyslexia and ADHD), and I thought it was refreshing to see a unique heroine presented in such a fun medium. Throughout the book, I found myself really rooting for Cece, and I could feel her frustration at not being able to understand her peers (the speech bubbles are often filled with gibberish to simulate what Cece is hearing). In presenting Bell’s story this way, she is allowing children to “walk a mile in her shoes,” so to speak, and it garners understanding and empathy for a disability that children might not know much about.
One of my absolute favorite things about this book is the fact that it presents differences (whether it is a disability or simply a quirk or interest) as being something that makes us special; in fact, Bell herself says, “Our differences are our superpowers” in the author’s note at the end of the book (Bell, 2014). At the very beginning of the novel, Cece points out that her friend Emma and her “have always looked different from each other, but in ways that didn’t matter” (Bell, 2014, p. 23). Again, Bell is subtly teaching children that it is perfectly okay to look or feel different; that our differences are what make us unique. This not only helps children reading the book to develop empathy for others, but tells children who might be different themselves that it’s totally okay to not be exactly like their classmates. I distinctly remember being Cece’s age and feeling as if I was all alone (“being different feels a lot like being alone,” as Cece says), simply because I was shy and had to wear enormous glasses in order to see properly (Bell, 2014, p. 46).
While I have never struggled with deafness or a loss in hearing, I found myself relating to Cece as I read, and rejoicing when she finally found a “true friend” to spend time with. There were times growing up when I would have given anything to have a friend like Martha (Cece’s best friend in the book), and I remember feeling a lot less alone once I found my group of “true friends.” This book, much like Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, reminds kids that they aren’t alone, and that they can find their differences to be empowering instead of embarrassing. Once Cece discovers that her classmates think her Phonic Ear is cool, she is much more empowered to share her unique ability to hear with them instead of being ashamed of her disability. I personally feel that the Newbery Honor awarded to this book is well-deserved, as it has the rare ability to teach children a valuable lesson without being obvious that it is trying to teach a lesson. If you’re at all interested in graphic novels, or if you just want a book that will make you smile and give you “warm fuzzies” for days to come, I would most definitely give this book a try.
Bell, C., Lasky, D., & Amulet Books,. (2014). El Deafo.
Hunter, S. (2014). El Deafo. The Booklist, 110(22), 57.