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 Gameout 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 Smile, El 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
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