Book Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

Overview:  I love graphic novels, especially graphic novel memoirs.  I miss teaching that class back when I taught English to undergrads instead of the grads I have now – not that I won’t put it into the curriculum in the future.  All that to say, when I saw ‘El Deafo’ in the local independent bookstore, I immediately snatched it up.

El Deafo is the memoir of Cece Bell, a woman who lost her hearing when about 4 years old from what appears to be a meningeal infection.  This chronicles her first few years of limited hearing.  She’s not fully deaf, and uses a contraption strapped to her chest, with earbuds, and then a microphone she gives to her teachers to hear what’s being said.  She learns to lip read, but it’s all frustrating because the world isn’t made for those with limited hearing.  To help her adjust to her new identity, and synthesize what’s going on with her friends around her (like her best friend who becomes scared of hurting her) she invents El Deafo!  The superhero version of herself, and those comics of her internal identity are interwoven with the text about her interactions with the world around her.

The Good:  There is so much good here.  First, I loved that while the memoir is about her learning to adjust to the world around her when her hearing changes, it is, like every good memoir, about so much more.  It’s about forming friendships and finding that great friend to stand by your side.  That’s a pretty much universal theme.  There’s the changing of schools, and the fear there.  There’s also the greatest fear – telling people who you see yourself as internally, and how they will respond to that.  And the story is told with such honesty.

The graphics are bright and vivid and, in the great tradition of graphic novel memoirs, the people are represented by animals with Cece as a rabbit.

The book is a good mix of story and emotion, and shows the range of ways people respond to someone who is hard of hearing.  There’s the person who speaks loudly and slowly, even after Cece says that doesn’t help her.  There are those who want to sign to her, even though she tells them she doesn’t know sign language.  Then there are those who just don’t care that she’s different and think she’s cool hearing aids or no, but there’s still a fear to let them in.  This is portrayed really well.

I also really like the integration of the inner hero she’s creating, ‘El Deafo’, with the super power being her real power – if the teacher leaves the microphone on, she can hear her wherever she may be, even in the bathroom!  Those moments provide great levity and mirth.

The Bad:  Not much that I can think of.  I read it twice in a row because I wanted it to be longer and not end.  It won the Newberry Honor for children’s books, but I think it’s great for readers of all ages.

The Female:  This is where it’s great.  Cece is a young girl going through her life as it changes, not just because of her hearing but puberty and schools and moving and all the dramas of being young.  While she does crush on a neighbor boy, the books is not about him.  She has a sister, parents, friends who are all female.  More of the book is about her wanting her best friend/side kick and how friendships form with other girls than the boy, even if he is the first one she tells about her ‘secret superpower.’  I think it’s a great view of girlhood.

I definitely recommend this book, and now have it on my list of narratives to include in future classes.


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