In this appealing graphic memoir by the children’s book author and illustrator Cece Bell, young Cece is only 4 when she comes down with meningitis. She survives, but her hearing doesn’t. At first, like any newly and suddenly deafened person, she retreats into herself, scared and confused (“I stay close to Mama, no matter where she is”).
Her mother coaxes her into trying her new hearing aid, which has a box she wears on a strap around her neck. She looks in the mirror: “Hmmm. Not great . . . but not bad, either. . . . Those cords though.” She hears much better but still has trouble understanding. Cece’s friend asks her if she wants “shoes” (juice) or a “goat.” Looking at the Coke bottle, she says, “I’ll have the goat!”
When she starts first grade in a mainstream school, she is given a “Phonic Ear.” She can hear, very well, but it’s the mid-1970s and the technology is clunky: The Phonic Ear is a big box Cece wears strapped to her chest, wires running from it up to her ears. Cece wears the receiver, and her teacher, Mrs. Lufton, wears a microphone and transmitter.
Bell’s full-page illustration of Cece wearing the Phonic Ear describes the elements of the device and also conveys Cece’s wry, spunky sensibility. “Underside of Phonic Ear: Freeeezing cold in winter, hot and sweaty in summer; therefore, undershirt a must!” Toward the bottom of this self-portrait, an arrow points to: “Underpants! avert your eyes!” Cece and all the otherwise human-seeming characters in “El Deafo” have rabbit ears (and rabbity noses), a witty visual metaphor for the outsize role ears play in the life of someone with hearing loss.
Cece’s life is full of the drama and trials of any schoolchild, but deafness complicates them, and she sometimes feels she exists in a bubble of loneliness. At a sleepover, when the girls turn out the lights, she loses the visual cues she needs to understand what her friends are talking about, and she calls her mother to take her home.
Everything changes for the better when Cece discovers that her Phonic Ear gives her a superpower of sorts. Not only can she hear Mrs. Lufton in the classroom, but she can hear her in the teachers’ lounge (“That Jimmy Malone is making my life hell!”) and even in the bathroom: “Tinkle tinkle,” then “flush!”
“I have amazing abilities unknown to anyone!” Cece says to herself. She begins to think of herself as a superhero, El Deafo. At first she keeps her powers secret. But in fifth grade, she gains new popularity with her classmates when the Phonic Ear allows her to warn them that their teacher is approaching. Thanks to Cece they can quit goofing around before she enters the room. “For the first time ever,” Cece announces, “El Deafo uses her superpowers for the good of others.”
In an author’s note, Bell acknowledges that some deaf people embrace their deafness while others want to “fix” hearing loss. “They might think of their deafness as a difference, and they might, either secretly or openly, think of it as a disability, too.” That’s fair, and honest.
It takes a bit of an inner superhero to get along as someone “special” in a classroom full of “normal” kids. Bell’s book should be an inspiration for those who are “different,” and it should help others to understand just what being different means. Required reading isn’t always fun reading. “El Deafo” should be the first and is definitely the second.
El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell. 233 pp. Amulet Books. Cloth, $21.95. Paper, $10.95. (Graphic novel; ages 8 to 12)