El Deafo: Graphic Novel Review

And being different? That turned out to be the best part of all. I found that with a little creativity, and a lot of education, any difference can be turned into something amazing. Our differences are our superpowers” — Cece Bell, El Deafo


El Deafo, Newbery Honor Book (2015) received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. El Deafo’s Newbery Honor “for outstanding contribution to children’s literature” is the first given to a graphic novel. In this graphic memoir, Cece Bell discusses with humor and honesty the challenges she faced as young girl after losing her hearing to illness. Reading El Deafo, we experience what it is like living with profound hearing loss, while looking and sounding different from everyone else. We see how lonely it can be when communication is difficult. We also see how Bell found the inner strength to embrace her differences, becoming stronger because of them.


OVERVIEW

In El Deafo, Cece Bell describes with grace and humor how difficult it was growing up with hearing loss. We learn to understand the communication hurdles Cece faced, and we learn how to more effectively interact with the deaf and hearing impaired. We also more clearly understand how Cece’s hearing impairment set her apart from her classmates and friends and how alone she felt. While she could hear with her hearing aid, it was often difficult to decipher similar sounding words, and this often led to somewhat garbled communication (hearing “I thig yoo loo goo,” “shoes” instead of “juice,” “goat” instead of “coke” are just a few examples).


To help her in school (given the more limited technology of the 1970s compared to what we have today), Cece was given a giant Phonic Ear that had to be strapped to her chest. Unfortunately it made her look different and even worse, she felt different. But Cece discovered that the Phonic Ear not only allowed her to hear her teacher, it became her alter ego and actually gave her super powers. When her teacher wore the microphone for the Phonic Ear, Cece could hear her wherever she was in the building. As time passes, Cece realizes she can use the Phonic Ear’s power not only for herself, but for others as well. She becomes the “ears” for the whole class and finds that being different doesn’t mean one has to be lonely or set apart from others.

El Deafo follows Bell as she navigates difficult friendships and the often-problematic communication efforts of her (usually) well-meaning friends. We understand and sympathize with Cece’s embarrassment at being different, and cheer once she discovers the unique ‘super’ powers her Phonic Ear gives her.


The graphic novel format Bell uses for telling this story is a brilliant choice. The fact that the characters are rabbits (providing a wonderful visual metaphor) emphasizes the power of ears and the acute hearing of all those around her. It also allows us to clearly see the hearing aids, their connecting wires, and the bulky Phonic Ear. Another advantage of the rabbit’s ears is that they capture how conspicuous Cece must have felt.


The graphic novel medium also allows Bell to illustrate how she heard others, and the difficulties she faced comprehending conversations, movies and television. Bell’s use of fading fonts in the text bubbles, empty text bubbles, garbled texts that are difficult to comprehend, and larger than life fonts when people are inadvertently (yet well-meaningly) screaming at her, all help readers vividly and more intuitively understand what hearing loss ‘feels’ like. Finally, Bell’s use of fading and/or vivid colors and play with panel structure and design further help relay Cece’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions as her story unfolds.

From beginning to end, El Deafo is a story about friendship and fitting in. It shows us how to embrace life’s twists and be more sensitive to others. While El Deafo is geared for middle school readers, it is a story for kids and adults of all ages. Readers will learn what it’s like to have severe to profound hearing loss; they’ll learn to better understand how it feels to live with hearing loss; and learn how to more effectively communicate with the deaf and hearing impaired. Finally, it shows that while Ms. Bell’s hearing loss clearly makes her ‘different’ from others, we learn that she is also just like most of us who struggle with a seemingly universal need (especially in middle school) to fit in. El Deafo is an empowering story that shows us how we may all embrace our own weaknesses and insecurities of feeling different, and how these weaknesses and insecurities might eventually make us stronger.


As Bell depicts the lessons she learned from her teacher at the J. B. Fisher Model School (a school where ”everyone here is just like me”, we too learn the about the intricacies of lip reading. We learn that to lip read effectively one must integrate visual cues (what one sees while a person talks to you), with contextual cues (what’s going on around you during the conversation), and gestural cues (what a person does with their hands, body, and face while talking). We also see that learning to lip read takes A LOT of practice. With Cece’s help, we learn seven additional discoveries about lip reading:

  1. “A lip reader must see the speaking person’s face at all times”;

  2. “Exaggerated mouth movements are confusing”;

  3. “Shouting is not good”;

  4. Mustaches and beards “are bad news!”

  5. Hands in front of mouths are “also bad news!”

  6. “When it gets dark, give up!”

  7. “Group discussions are impossible to understand.”


In short El Deafo is a warm uplifting story of how a young girl bravely and honestly deals with being different. It is a book about growing up, learning how to fit in, and a book about friendships. Equally empowering, it is a book about what it looks and sounds like when living with severe hearing loss, while teaching us how to better understand and communicate with the deaf and hearing impaired.

Throughout El Deafo, Ms. Bell discusses:

  • How to cope with life’s misfortunes;

  • How one brave girl finds inner strength;

  • How to find one’s voice, especially to express needs and concerns;

  • How to distinguish true friends from ‘comfortable’ friends and even non-friends; and

  • How to better recognize the challenges faced by people with hearing loss, and more effectively communicate with them.

NOTE: You will find lesson suggestions for this book under the "RESOURCES" and then "LESSONS."

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