El Deafo by Cece Bell, 233 pp, RL: 4

Cece Bell's graphic novel memoir, El Deafo, with color by David Lasky, tells the story of losing 80% of her hearing at age four and has been getting a lot of well deserved advance attention. The  review copy boasts stellar blurbs from, among others, R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder, and Raina Telgemeier, author of the graphic novel, Smile. Both are amazing books about struggling with the adversities of being physically different from your peers, books that El Deafo has aptly been compared to. As school librarian, book reviewer and blurb contributor to El Deafo Travis Jonker noted in his review of El Deafo, "Part of what makes memoirs so appealing is their universality," and I couldn't agree more. While I never experienced the orthodontic trauma that Raina Telgemeier did or the loss of hearing that Cece Bell did, these masterful storytellers drew me into their stories, hooking me with their illustrative style and their fantastic writing. Young Raina and young Cece are characters you want to spend time with, know more about and share in their triumphs and tough days. (Scroll down to see a very cool video of Cece drawing characters from Telgemeier's sequel to Smile, Sisters, and Raina drawing El Deafo!)
 A big part of what makes El Deafo so winning is Cece, and the other big part is Bell's illustrations, which call to mind a favorite graphic novelist of mine who regularly has animals standing in for humans, Sara Varon. In a talk Bell gave at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Conference (scroll down for the clip) for El Deafo, she said she chose rabbits rather than humans because rabbits can hear really well and what's funnier than a rabbit with hearing aids? Despite the fact that Bell's characters are drawn with cute, simplistic faces, they are very expressive and she does a phenomenal job, both with words and pictures, of conveying the experience of not being able to hear and understand the world around. When Cece is four, is hospitalized with meningitis. As she heals, it is clear that she has lost a considerable amount of her ability to hear. Because she was verbal before her hearing loss, Cece is able to speak and she is sent to a special kindergarten class (along with her hearing aid) and taught to lip read along with the ABCs and 123s.
Like Raina and her evolving orthodontics in Smile, Cece's hearing loss is addressed and affects her life in ever changing ways as she grows up. While dealing with everyday things like bossy friends, a miserable P.E. class and a first crush, Cece also struggles with loneliness and isolation, anger at being forced to go to a sign language class. Sometimes stuck in her "bubble of loneliness," she also finds it hard to know when and how much to discuss her hearing loss with friends and classmates, usually choosing to keep her experiences to herself. In the same ALA talk, Bell said that in second grade, she told a classmate she was pregnant rather than explain the Phonic Ear device she wore under her clothing while at school. When, in first grade, Cece realizes that the microphone her teacher wears in conjunction with Cece's Phonic Ear allows her to hear her teacher anywhere she goes on campus, she decides that she has superpowers and imagines herself as a Batman-like superhero. Characters on television shows  become Cece's best friends for a time, even though her at home hearing aid doesn't allow her to understand what they are saying. It's while watching an episode of ABC After School Special with her older siblings, Cece is stunned to see someone wearing a Phonic Ear just like hers. She begs her siblings to tell her what the actors are saying and, reluctantly, they tell her that one kid just called another kid "Deafo." Cece bursts out laughing and decides to own it, naming her alter-ego superhero El Deafo. Whenever Cece finds herself in a situation where she is not sure what to do or doesn't like how she is being treated, she becomes (in her mind) El Deafo, dealing with the situation as her super-self. Cece even finds a sidekick in Martha, a neighbor who becomes her best friend.

What I love most about El Deafo is Cece herself. She has so many qualities and traits that are a little bit odd and quirky, but also really endearing and completely genuine and realistic, which makes sense, since this is a memoir. Nevertheless, to write the character of Cece, tell her story and fit it into the format of a graphic novel for kids while also making it completely engaging, Bell couldn't just pour herself onto the page. The details Bell has chosen to include in El Deafo, from the fact that four-year-old Cece likes to wear her two-piece, polka dot bathing suit everywhere or the idea that the all-powerful pink rosette on her undershirt will lure her supercrush to her or the fact that, after she injures her eye, she gets a kick out of wearing an eye patch, all add up to make a memorable, likable character. And, I have to admit, as someone a few years older than Bell, El Deafo was a really fantastic walk down memory lane, from the aforementioned ABC After School Special to Hostess Cherry Pies, to T.A. for Tots and Warm Fuzzies, a memorable moment from my fourth grade year. If you don't know this book on Transactional Analysis for kids, check out this post (with pages from the book!) at this awesome blog, Awful Library Books. Like Telgemeier's SmileEl Deafo is a book that will be read over and over, by boys and girls,  for years and years.

Other books by Cece Bell:

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, winner of the Theodore Geisel Honor!

Crankee Doodle, written by Bell's husband, Tom Angleberger

Bee Wigged

The Sock Monkey Books
(featuring Miss Bunn, who makes an appearance in El Deafo!)

Source: Review Copy

Video courtesy of Rebecca Petruck, author of Steering Toward Normal


Unwind by Neal Shusterman, 352 pp, RL: TEEN

Unwind is the first book in the Unwind Dystology by Neal ShustermanUnwind was published in 2007, fourteen years after the thought provoking, conversation starting Newbery winner, The Giver and one year before the book that made "dystopian" a household word, The Hunger Games. I was a bookseller when The Hunger Games was published and my fellow booksellers and I avidly passed around the advance reader copy we got then struggled to explain the book - and convey how amazing it was despite the disturbing plot - to customers once it was released. In terms of thought provoking and disturbing plots, Unwind has The Giver and The Hunger Games beat. Once the three main characters of the book are on the run together, Unwind unfolds at a fast pace with Shusterman revealing more and more horrifically logical elements of the dystopian world he has masterfully created.

In The Giver, a purportedly utopian community relinquishes literature, music, art and the ability to see color while also committing infanticide and euthanizing the elderly to maintain order. In The Hunger Games, the government stages an annual, televised event where twenty-four boys and girls fight to the death - both for entertainment and as a reminder to the citizens of Panem to tow the line. Unwind is set sometime in a future where iPods are considered antiques and transplants (anything from eyes to arms to lobes of the brain) have become the standard medical response to all illness. Far from a utopia, this is a society living with compromises brought about by The Second Civil War, also known as the Heartland War, fought by the Life Army and the Choice Brigade. Ending this war has brought about changes in the laws of United States and hideous compromises that citizens seem to be accepting of. Abortion has been outlawed, but "retroactive abortion" becomes the legal. In a country where all pregnancies are carried to term, unwanted newborns become wards of the state or they can be "storked," which entails a new parent leaving his/her infant on the doorstep of a house, ringing the doorbell and fleeing. If the abandoning parent does not get caught, the baby becomes the "storked" family's responsibility. As a response, "retroactive abortion" has been instituted. "Retroactive abortion" allows parents to opt out of parenthood by having a child with discipline or health issues between the ages of 13 - 18, "unwound," a practice which feeds and fuels the transplant industry, making their "unwinding" a seemingly worthwhile act.  

The most amazing and compelling aspect of Unwind is the evenhanded way that Shusterman writes his world - rather than pick sides, he presents all sides. And all sides (there are more than two...) seem to be equally heinous in their actions and there are many, many blind eyes turned. As in The Giver, language allows people to feel more comfortable about what they are doing and condoning. Unwinds do not die, but live on in a "divided state." In fact, the process of being unwound is treated with such secrecy that many of the children actually believe that they will not die during the process. Shusterman even includes a chilling chapter in which a character is unwound, the reader experiencing every moment of the process, including the babble of the nurses and doctors, from the unwind's perspective. However, there are also, possibly apocryphal stories, of the psychological toll the decision to unwind can have on parents in the form of the story of "Humphrey Dunfee." Supposedly, after deciding to have their son unwound many years ago, the  Dunfees went mad with grief and regret, traveling the world to find the recipients of transplants from their son so, like Humpty Dumpty, they could put him back together again...

The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev, are each being unwound for different reasons. Sixteen-year-old Connor has impulse control issues and stumbles across his unwind papers along with plane tickets for the family vacation - one that he realizes he will not be going on. Risa, also sixteen and raised in a State Home, is being unwound because of funding cuts, chosen for the procedure because her classical piano playing skills were not as good enough. Along the way, they meet other runaway Unwinds and learn the sad and sometimes frivolous or avaricious reasons for  the decision to retroactively abort. The most interesting character in the book and the one who undergoes the most profound changes, is Lev. In this new world, ultra-religious families who tithe 10% of their income to the church also believe in tithing 10% of all their worldly possessions, including children. Blond haired, blue eyed Lev is a tithe, the 10th child, and has been raised to believe that as a tithe his life has special purpose and meaning and to be proud of this designation, which requires him to wear white. On his thirteenth birthday, a "tithing party," much like a Bar Mitzvah, sends him off to a special camp where tithes continue their religious studies before being unwound, many of them believing that they pass on the ability to perform miracles in the parts of them used for transplants. 

Over the course of the novel, as they run from their fates, Connor, Risa Lev and come together and fall apart in spectacular events that continually reveal the incredible and insidious ways in which society adapts to, benefits from and declines from the new laws. Shusterman's ideas are sometimes stronger than his writing, nevertheless, Unwind is a book that will linger long in my thoughts, much like The Giver has.

If you don't mind a tiny spoiler, scroll to the bottom for information on a novella Shusterman publised in eBook form only that expands on Lev's story in Unwind.

Other books in the Unwind Dystology:

Book 4: UnDivided, due out October 2014

UnStrung - an eBook novella

One incredible aspect of Unwind that I couldn't fit into my review are the "clappers," young terrorists who fill their bloodstreams with undetectable explosives and detonate themselves at key moments in key places. Toward the end of Unwind, Lev falls in with a terrorist group. UnStrung is about his time there.

Source: Purchased Audio Book