Well, I couldn’t have chosen a better book to raise my spirits in these trying times. Cece Bell’s Newbery Honor-winning graphic novel is pitched toward kids but will entertain and educate anyone who picks it up. El Deafo is Bell’s account of losing her hearing but finding her power in her childhood. I am the parent of two special needs kids, one of whom wears a hearing aid, and I found myself saying, “wow, I never thought of that,” as Bell recounts what it was like to lose her hearing, learn to live with bulky hearing aids, try to lip-read, and struggle to fit in with typical kids in her neighborhood and classroom. As a child, she created El Deafo as a sort of superhero alter ego who had the courage and strength to confront the injustice and stupidity all around her. With time, Bell grew to be El Deafo for real.
Cece Bell was born in 1970, so she is writing about a childhood in that decade. When she was four, she lost her hearing after suffering meningitis. A device known as the “Phonic Ear” restores some of Cece’s hearing, but the device is quite bulky. She has to wear it in a pouch on a cord around her neck, and much to her dismay, the ear buds have visible cords that attach to the box. There’s no way to hide it. She stands out, and like most kids, Cece just wants to blend in. When she first starts school, she attends a special school where she learns to lip read. After a year there, Cece moves on to public school. She wants so much to have friends and do what everyone else is doing but some obstacles get in the way. There are practical problems, such as having difficulty hearing and lip reading in a noisy group setting. Sometimes, other people, while well intentioned, create problems. It’s difficult to lip read people who shout at her (they think it’s helpful since she is hearing impaired) or who exaggerate lip movement when they speak (again, not helpful) or if they are turned away. And then there is Cece’s own self consciousness and shyness. Like many children, she is nervous about putting herself out there and making friends, and as a result, kids who are “forceful personalities” can be rather domineering toward Cece and blissfully unaware of some of the callous things they do. I think just about everyone has had experience with these types of people. They criticize your work, try to dominate every play situation, never ask what you would like to do. Even worse, kids behave toward Cece in ways that dehumanize or infantilize her. They talk about her as if she weren’t there or couldn’t understand what they are saying. She’s “that deaf girl, isn’t she cute, let’s help her” — as if a person with a disability is incapable of being just like you in every other way!
Whenever Cece has to deal with these problematic people and situations, she imagines her superhero self El Deafo responding with force and vigor to defend herself and eradicate the stupidity. But in fact, she retreats into her bubble and tries to avoid what’s bothering her rather than confront it. As Cece grows older, she learns to make more of an effort to make and keep friends, which is not always easy, as I think most kids understand. She also develops a crush on a neighborhood boy, and amazingly, it’s her Phonic Ear, the very thing she hated and was embarrassed about, that will help her make the connections she has been desiring.
El Deafo would be an excellent read for people like Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions; you know, assholes who don’t know what IDEA is and think kids with disabilities should be separated from typical students because they hurt test scores or have behaviors or just aren’t really equal to everyone else. Even our dumbass president Turd Ferguson might be able to understand this book. Kids will love El Deafo because she is eminently relatable, and Bell draws all of her characters as rabbits. They’re super cute! El Deafo is my hero. Long may she fly.
P.S. Cece Bell’s husband is Tom Angleberger of Origami Yoda fame.