Cece Bell’s graphic novel, El Deafo, is a powerful example of how the storytelling possibilities of a talented writer/illustrator working in a graphic form can create a powerful response from a reader. If every that was in doubt, read El Deafo.
Bell uses her own childhood loss of hearing, due to illness, as the hook to tell the rich story of identity and individuality, even as she brings the reader into the often-confusing world of growing up in an auditory world where you can’t hear everything that is going on around you.
As if childhood weren’t difficult enough …
But Bell never lets her character or us, the reader, wallow in any pity or disconnect for too long, as CeCe, the character, shows her pluck and fortitude, as my grandmother might say, to make friends, to help teachers understand her hearing impairment, and to navigate through the use of hearing aids and lip reading. CeCe is patient and understanding, and willing to go the extra mile to be accepted by others for who she is.
The moniker — El Deafo — refers to her exciting discovery that, as long as a teacher is wearing the microphone clip that sends signals to her hearing aids, she can hear “everything” that goes on (including times when the teacher uses the bathroom, bringing much humor to the book). Bell’s use of empty dialogue bubbles, or fading text, as well as even the animal-like characters that suggest Marc Brown’s Arthur series, are very effective here, on many levels.
Personally, I found the story even more interesting than usual, as I have a hearing-impaired student and I do wear a clipped-on microphone for part of the day. (I do take it off when I use the bathroom, just fyi). CeCe’s story had special resonance for me as I think about the world of my student, who does so well in the regular classroom and who only needs some supports to help him communicate with me and classmates (who speak into a microphone during class discussions.)
Bell brought me into the world of the hearing impaired in a way that none of the articles I have read nor none of the discussions I have had with hearing loss experts have been able to do. She humanized the experience, and in doing so, she made her character of CeCe a universal “kid” struggling to fit in while learning to accept and celebrate her differences.
Peace (in the graphic),