Review by Chloe Anderson
Written and Illustrated by Cece Bell
Winner of the John Newberry Medal
El Deafo is perfect for new readers as a bridge between sight-word books and more complex stories. It tells the story of Cece Bell, who loses most of her hearing at the age of 4. New schools and making friends can be scary on its own, but it’s even more complicated when everyone sounds like they are speaking under water.
Ms. Bell has distilled her experience growing up with a hearing disability into a touching story about perseverance and the meaning of friendship. Aimed at younger kids, this graphic novel utilizes cute art and simple language to communicate its heartfelt point.
Even if the reader does not have a disability, El Deafo offers a poignant window into what our friends in the deaf community experience every day, and raises important questions about how to be helpful and kind to people who are “different.”
Themes: Growing up, New school, feeling alone, make believe, different kinds of friends, kindness
REVIEW OF EL DEAFO
Kids are way smarter than we often give them credit for. Books written to young audiences often fall into the trap of being so simple as to bore kids right to sleep, or even worse, right into hating to read. That’s why books like El Deafo are so important to include for new readers.
Cece Bell channels her memories of young life into a story that is simple enough for young readers to identify with, and poignant enough for older readers to be fascinated with. Tracking life from when Cece got Meningitis at four years old all the way to sixth grade covers a lot of ground.
But the all-encompassing theme of the book is, “what do you do with adversity?” While the Meningitis took most of her hearing, Cece is still an imaginative little girl who loves sleepovers and learning just like her classmates. When she sees a bully on TV call another child “El Defo!” Cece can’t stop her giggles – it sounds so funny. And yet she reasons that she must be “deafo” too.
And so, her super hero alter-ego of El Defo is born. This alter ego enables her to think about challenges in an empowered way; for instance her hearing aid isn’t a handicap anymore, it’s like one of batman’s cool gadgets giving her super hearing. This winsome attitude towards facing her disability is one that any child can easily identify with. Ms. Bell presents her characters in ways that are beautifully relatable thanks to their common desires for friendship, independence and belonging.
Despite her disability, the issues that Cece encounters throughout the comic are universal. She feels isolated when other students don’t include her. She wants friends who see her for who she is. She struggles with the nervous butterflies of liking a cute boy. Cece’s emotional experience is like the experience that any child might encounter while growing up, changing schools and making friends.
Ms. Bell’s keen empathy with how young students see the world offers up small stories within El Deafo that make great touch stones for discussion for any student, either in class or at home.
IN THE CLASROOM
This text will be most useful for elementary aged students.
- Lessons on Feelings: As kids grow into new social settings, often they encounter new and powerful emotions. Fear, excitement or anticipation can be hard to explain because they are so abstract, but kids know it when they see it, whether presented in a story or encountered in real life. Discuss how Cece is feeling in different scenarios. Ask kids if they have ever felt that way, or even if they have friends who might feel that way.
- Learning to Work with Students with Disabilities: This is a subject that many people often struggle to address. Kids often don’t know how to treat a student who learns or plays And teachers must walk the line between accommodating the disability, and treating the student like the rest of their peers. El Deafo offers an insider’s perspective about how our actions help or hurt someone who experiences life with a disability. Discuss what Cece’s friends did that helped her and hurt her. Are her feelings different than anyone else’s? What are ways we can all be kind to each other? What can non-disabled people learn from girls like Cece?
- Friends, Bullies and Social Skills: Sometimes friends are the best, sometimes they are the worst.Cece, as El Deafo, encounters both kinds of friends. But, with insightful parallels to real life, the conflicts are presented in such a way as to suggest empathy for all parties involved. When her friend Giny tries to accommodate Cece’s hearing loss by speaking too slowly and too loudly, Cece finds herself wondering if the rude loudness is because Ginny is trying to help. Discuss what makes a good friend. How can we learn to listen to our friends for how they would like to be treated? How can we learn to ask our friends to treat us respectfully? What makes a bully? What can we do about bullying behavior?
In addition to all the great discussion points, this graphic novel utilizes cute art and simple language to communicate its heartfelt point. Ms. Bell has illustrated the story herself, in a style that is reminiscent of art that her target audience might make themselves. Cece and her friends are portrayed as humanized bunnies which play out their stories against colorful back grounds which evoke the emotion of each scene.
Even if the reader does not have a disability, El Deafo offers a poignant window into what our friends in the deaf community experience every day, and raises important questions about how to be helpful and kind to all the people whom we encounter in our daily lives, no matter how “different” they may seem.
About Chloe Anderson:
Chloe is a Colorado filmmaker and educator. She has worked both as a producer and actor, and is an award-winning screen writer with a love of mentoring young creators. Chloe has spent 10 years as a private tutor specializing in language arts. Chloe also has over a decade of experience working with, and advocating for, non-profits that support the arts in education, and now she is delighted to be contributing to Pop Culture Classroom’s mission of empowerment through creativity.