June 17th, 2019
Book: El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell, Newbery Honor book, published by Amulet Books.
Type of book: Graphic novel, non-fiction, autobiography.
Overview of the author/illustrator: Cece Bell is just as goofy as you might expect her to be, based on her own renditions of herself in El Deafo. The headliner to her website has a banner for her newest creation: Smell My Foot; and she describes herself as: “I am a children’s book author and illustrator, and, quite possibly, a hermit. I eat nuts, avoid nits and gnats, and make lovely nets out of knots,” (Bell, 2012). Bell’s writing/illustrating process is interesting to note, because it actually varies from what I am most used to reading. Bell proclaims that she actually writes the story first and then starts on the illustrations, once the story is fine-tuned enough and ready to go. She describes this as follows: “When I get a decent idea, I usually write it on a piece of paper and stick it in the top drawer of my desk. When I’m ready to start working on a new book, I look at all those scraps of paper and pick one that is most appealing — or combine a few into one story. I always, always write the story first, trying very hard to get it as perfect and streamlined as possible. Once I’m satisfied with the story, I do a bird’s eye view of the whole book on one piece of paper, to try to figure out the pacing and that sort of stuff. Usually I end up editing the words at this point as well. Lots of back-and-forth between words and tiny pictures,” (Jules, 2008). Bell writes in the back of El Deafo, “I myself am ‘severely to profoundly’ deaf, the result of a brief illness when I was four years old. While I’m fascinated by Deaf culture, I have not, as yet, pursued a direct role in it,” (2014). One could argue that’s not quite the case, as El Deafo shares her story as a person in the Deaf community and might serve to educate others on what it looks, and feels like, to be a Deaf person.
Summary of the book: El Deafo is a light-hearted graphic novel that chronicles Bell’s transition into being a Deaf person. She wasn’t born hard of hearing, but rather lost her hearing due to a case of meningitis she had when she was four years old. The book starts with her hearing loss (just before starting Kindergarten), and then follows her all the way to 5th grade, showing us all the ups and downs along the way; her struggles to make friends, what it’s like to lug around her giant hearing aid (and what it’s like to break it!), adventures in forced sign language learning, and even her first elementary school crush.
Cece Bell doesn’t really fall into neat category for a biography. She is an artist and an author; but her book El Deafo isn’t about her learning how to write and illustrate. It doesn’t even go past the 5th grade, and in fact, aside from a comment about a girl in her class who can draw a good horse, she doesn’t mention an interest in either. She’s not a sports personality, explorer, adventurer, humanitarian, or villain. Judging by Bell’s own descriptions of herself, she probably wouldn’t agree with this, but she’s really just an interesting person. Bell writes in the back of El Deafo: “I was a deaf kid surrounded by kids who could hear. I felt different, and in my mind, being different was not a good thing. I secretly, and openly, believed that my deafness, in making me so different, was a disability. And I was ashamed,” (2014). She finishes by adding, “And being different? That turned out to be the best part of all. I found that with a little creativity, and a lot of dedication, any difference can be turned into something amazing. Our differences are our superpowers,” (2014). I believe that Bell wrote this book to show others that being Deaf isn’t a disability, and being different – in ANY way – isn’t a bad thing. Tired of hearing that it makes you “special” (which Bell just heard as a synonym for “different”) she transformed it into something that gives you superpowers. Something almost all children (and adults) wish and dream for, something positive.
El Deafo is a partial biography, as it focuses only on Bell’s childhood through the 5th grade, and only focuses on the subject of her profound hearing loss through her early years and nothing else about her later life. However, the fact that this graphic novel is only a partial biography does not mean that the story is lacking – rather the opposite. Focusing on just this part of Bell’s life gives her the opportunity to tell this part of her story in its entirety. Tunnell, et al. describe one of the pitfalls of biographies as, “One of the shortcoming of some juvenile biographies is that they glorify their subjects, turning them into idols or making them larger than life. This is another form of stereotyping that alienates readers from the subject of a biography instead of helping them know that person as a real human being. To present a balanced view means looking at the blemishes as well as the strong points,” (2016, pg. 173). Although Bell presents her character (herself) as a superhero, we follow her through all the struggles and low-points to get there – which is what makes her a full and balanced character.
We see Bell struggle to accept sign language classes but later see her reflect on this by being able to see her thought process, “I could have learned how to do that if I had ‘participated.’ And maybe I should have… but then other people would stare at me the way I’m staring at that couple. Right? Oh, why do I even care what other people think?” (2014, pg. 117). We see Bell’s self-consciousness at her hearing aids, her struggles to fit in, worries that everyone is only looking at her hearing aids, and then we see her begin to see herself as a superhero.
Bell provides us with unexpected insights, letting us see her innermost thoughts throughout the book. She does this with her words and through illustrations: showing us exactly what it would feel like to hear nothing at all (blank speech bubbles) to have your hearing aid batteries run down (as the text becomes lighter) to how Bell explains that she can hear what people are saying with her aids in but she can’t understand them (speech bubbles full of nonsense).
She even shows us how difficult it is to lip read, showing us different scenarios where she can not fully see a person who is talking, and how difficult it can be to watch TV based on the characters positioning, explaining rather humorously that she can’t “lip-read a butt!” (2014, p. 77).
She also uses dialogue throughout the whole novel to “reveal character… when a person’s mouth opens, truth emerges about personality, motives, desires, prejudices, and feelings,” (Tunnell et al., 2016, pg. 27). This is a crucial piece to Bell’s storytelling, as we begin to understand her struggle with her friend Ginny, who speaks to her LOUDLY and SLOWLY as if that will help her to become less deaf. The speech bubbles uses when showing how Ginny speaks to her really shed light on why the friendship becomes strained, despite all that they have in common. If we were just told that Ginny speaks to her that way without being shown it, it wouldn’t have the same meaning and the reader would not feel as empathetic toward Bell.
Being that this book is a graphic novel, the illustrations carry a lot of weight. The book is illustrated in a cartoonish style, where the characters are depicted as bunnies. I believe that Bell did this to show how big of a role her ears played in her early life. Perhaps this is how Bell really felt – that her ears stuck out with the addition of her “funny-looking ear globs” (Bell, 2014, pg. 19). Bell writes in the back that she felt different her whole life, and illustrating the characters as bunnies really draws attention to their ears, in the same way she probably felt.
As stated previously, the illustrations in this book do a look of the work to enhance what the writer is saying. We really feel how it feels when Bell’s batteries run out, what it’s like to try to lip-read when you can’t see someone’s mouth, how Bell can hear what people are saying but she cannot understand them, the weight of her elementary school crush (when her eyes are drawn as hearts!), and her embarrassment at situations those who can hear would not think of (when the lights go out and she cannot lip-read, or when she’s asked to watch a movie at a slumber party). The illustrations through the book establish the mood, reinforce the text, andhelp to define and develop the characters.
We wouldn’t have as in-depth of an understanding of Bell’s tricky relationship with her pushy first best friend Laura without the illustrations of her playing “the dining room game” where her dog Fluff bites her as she marches around the table; or the illustrations that depict her as El Deafo, “pushing back” and using her phonic ear cords to “[tie] her up with the Cords of Intuition!” (Bell, 2014, pg. 58). We wouldn’t understand as well how good it feels to be friends with Martha if she wasn’t shown blushing and thinking, “Wait! Martha knows about my hearing-aids?” (Bell, 2014, pg. 127) and her shown again as El Deafo, asking her, “By the power of the pinkie, do you swear to join the fight against boredom and loneliness, and o never swerve from the path of true friendship?” (pg. 130). Her short spurts of imagination as El Deafo show us that despite the hurdles she’s faced, Bell develops not only a sense of humor, but also resilience. She know that she’s different, but little by little, she begins to realize how amazing, how incredible, and how much of a superhero that truly makes her.
Bell, C. (2012). Bio. Retrieved June 17, 2019, from https://cecebell.wordpress.com/bio/
Bell, C., & Lansky, D. (2014). El Deafo. New York, NY: Amulet Books.
Jules. Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Cece Bell. (2008, December 4). Retrieved June 17, 2019 from http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=1520
Tunnell, M. O., Jacobs, J. S., Young, T. A., & Bryan, G. (2016). Children’s Literature, Briefly (6th ed.). Upple Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.