Thursday, December 4, 2014

El Deafo, Cece Bell

Title:  El Deafo
Author:  Cece Bell
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year:  2014
Pages: 233
Genre:  Memoir, Graphic Novel
Theme:  Disability, Perseverance, Friendship, Self-Esteem
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends. 
Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school--in the the teacher's the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different... and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

Charming is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe this graphic novel about a girl (rabbit?!?) with a hearing impairment.  Cece Bell tells her own story in this engaging memoir, which details her bout with meningitis as a toddler, her struggle to learn to lip read, her ambivalence with her hearing aids, and her eventual acceptance of herself exactly the way she is.

Bell grew up in the 1970s, and there are quite a few pop culture references that today's student readers may not get right away.  But I grew up during the same period as Bell, and I found myself fondly remembering times and places from my own childhood.  The setting also highlights the difference in treatment options for children with hearing impairments today, when technology has allowed doctors to return normal or almost normal hearing to many people who would not have been able to hear as well in the past.

What hasn't changed, as far as I can tell, though, is the way that the deaf and hard of hearing are perceived and treated by some in society.  Cece's experiences demonstrate the things that people do, with good intentions or bad, that make people with hearing impairments (or physical or cognitive disabilities) feel like the "other".  Cece was afraid to stand out, didn't want to be noticed for her hearing aids or her awkward speech. She pretended to understand things that she didn't really hear in an effort to "fit in".  She desperately wanted a friend who just treated her like the normal person she really is inside, but the various other children she met during her elementary school years never seemed to be able to totally forget the hearing impairment.  She was the "deaf" friend, the friend who sometimes made unfortunate, laughable mistakes because of her difficulty understanding speech,  and some of the girls who befriended her seemed to be motivated by their own desire to be noticed for their kindness to the "deaf" girl.

There are a few things in this book that might be problematic in a school setting.  It was the 70s, and people smoked in the 70s (including her teacher, which is mentioned one time in one panel).  There is also some bathroom humor involving Cece's ability to hear her teacher while peeing.  I didn't find anything really objectionable, but if you are a teacher, you know your population and what would be acceptable or not.  There are definitely plenty of opportunities for discussion with the themes in this book, and the fact that this is a memoir makes the message even more powerful.

Teacher Resources:
Cece Bell Talking About El Deafo
Cece Bell's Website
Abrams Teaching Guides

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