Skip to main content

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. Palacio, Telgemeier and Bell's amazing books about children struggling with the adversities of being physically different from your peers. 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 thew character of Cece. 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 about El Deafo, she said she chose rabbits rather than humans as characters because rabbits can hear really well and what's funnier than a rabbit with hearing aids? Bell's characters are drawn with cute, simplistic faces, yet 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 you. 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 in various capacities and it affects her life in ever changing ways as she grows older. While dealing with everyday things like bossy friends, a miserable P.E. class and a first crush, Cece also struggles with loneliness and isolation and 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. 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 everything about 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 and a teacher who reads The Westing Game
out loud, 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


Popular posts from this blog

Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff - Projects You Can Build For (and With) Kids! by Scott Bedford

On his personal website, Scott Bedforddescribes himself as an "Award Winning Online Creative Professional" working within the advertising and design industry. What is more interesting (and applicable here) is how hisWhat I Made website came to be. While sitting in a Starbucks with his restless young sons, trying to enjoy his latte, Bedford created something out of coffee stir sticks that ended up keeping his boys entertained, finishing his coffee in peace and sparking (re-sparking, really) his creative drive and reminding him of the "enormous joy gained from making things, even simple things, and that this joy is not the complexity or quality of the finished project but in the process of making itself. On Bedford'sWhat I Made website, he even shares Six Cool Coffee Shop Crafts for Kidsthat you can try out next time you want to enjoy your coffee and your kids are making that difficult. I've shared two below - be sure to check out the website and see the rest!


How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers

How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers remains the most read post on my blog since I wrote it in 2012. Because of this, I have cleaned up this post, tightened the writing and added in any pertinent information that has come about since it originally ran. When I first started in August of 2008, I was scrambling for content, finding my purpose and my voice and not always doing my best writing. How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers was one of the first articles I wrote and, as a bookseller and a book reviewer, and now as an elementary school librarian where I have gone from working with kids reading well beyond their grade level to kids reading well below, this philosophy remains my organizing principle and central focus when reading and recommending books to parents and children. 

In the interest of my mission and the attention this article continues to receive, I have updated and expanded this article and included a guide to using …

POP-UP: Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book, paper engineering by Ruth Wickings, illustrations by Frances Castle RL: All ages

POP-UP:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book with paper engineering by Ruth Wickings and illustrations by Frances Castle is THE COOLEST BOOK EVER!!!  I know that I haven't dedicated much time to pop-up books here, but they have always held a special place in my heart, and the phrase "paper engineering" is a favorite of mine. Although I didn't know what it was at the time, I did go through a paper engineering phase when I was ten or so. I would sneak off to the back of the classroom during independent work periods and go to town on the construction paper and glue and make these little free-standing dioramas. A huge fan of The Muppet Show (the original), I reconstructed the all-baby orchestra from an episode, drawing and coloring each baby and his/her instrument then gluing them onto a 3D orchestra section I had crafted out of brown construction paper.  I also made a 3D version of Snidely Whiplash throwing Nell off a cliff with Dudley Do-Right wa…