El Deafo by Cece Bell, color by David Lasky
You might not recognize her name immediately, but if you click here (and happen to have children of a certain age, and/or like to browse the kiddie sections of libraries and bookstores), you’ll definitely recognize Cece Bell’s literally artful creations. This, her first graphic title, is also her first autobiographical work: “El Deafo is based on my childhood (and on the secret nickname I really did give myself back then),” she shares in her “A Note from the Author” at book’s end. “It is in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience … I was more interested in capturing the specific feelings I had as a kid with hearing loss than in being 100 percent accurate with the details.”
Regardless of how much that “100 percent” is fact or fiction quickly becomes a moot point once you’ve read the book. Because this is one superheroic adventure of growing up “different” … and, as Bell learns, “Our differences are our superpowers.”
At 4, meningitis leaves Bell “‘severely to profoundly’ deaf.” Thankfully, her spirit remains indomitable: “Just because I can’t hear good doesn’t mean I can’t look good,” she tells her mirror as she dons her favorite itty-bitty polka-dotted bikini when she returns home from the hospital. “I look fantastic!”
When Bell visits her doctor (she so savors those cherry lollipops after), he presents her with “a little box with cords attached to it.” Suddenly, a mere dial adjustment turns Bell’s surround-sound back on. Alas, hearing is not the same as understanding: “Simple conversations are now so difficult,” Bell admits, especially when she hears “shoes” instead of juice, or “goat” instead of Coke.
Kindergarten turns out to be a perfect introduction to going-to-school-with-cords when Bell is placed in a classroom with other cord-connected children. Their caring, patient teacher not only covers math, reading, and writing, but also teaches the kids to lip-read. Alas, Bell’s family leaves their “small row house in the big city … for a big house in a small town” and Bell’s new school doesn’t offer a cord-friendly class. Instead, she must rely on her new “superpowerful, just-for-school-hearing aid: The Phonic Ear” which allows Bell to hear the teacher with clarity – in the class and far beyond (think faculty room, smoking lounge, and, uhm … that private little facility called a toilet, oh my my my!).
And yet Bell’s superhearing sets her apart: “Superheroes might be awesome, but they are also different. And being different feels a lot like being alone.” Making friends, feeling welcome, being included, is something Bell struggles with grade after grade: domineering Laura, loudly-screeching Ginny, hilarious but fearful Martha, gorgeous new neighbor Mike, each teach her important lessons on building true, lasting relationships.
Although Bell’s precocious star might look more bunny than human (those oversized ears can’t be coincidental, ahem!), El Deafo proves to be a universal story about anykid searching, testing, finding her place among her watching, questioning, too-often judging peers. Big ears aside, perhaps Bell’s cunicular cast is also paying sweet homage to Grandma Bell, the original creator of a beloved stuffed toy named Miss Bunn, who makes a few panel appearances between the pages [click here and scroll halfway down to meet the pink ginghamed prototype]. Bell’s childhood superpower might have been her superhearing, but in adulthood, she’s indubitably enhanced her aural talents with superpowered superstorytelling, as well.
Readers: Middle Grade