Review: El Deafo

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Genres: Graphic Novel, Autobiographical Fiction, Middle-Grade
Maturity Level: 1
View on 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 hallway… in the teacher’s lounge… in 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?

Do you like middle-grade graphic novels? How about own-voices disability perspectives? What about people conceptualizing themselves as rabbits for no apparent reason other than to make the illustrations fun? THEN THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU!

This is an absolutely stunning autobiographical graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing in the year before kindergarten, and who then has to navigate the world through the lens of being different. Graphic novel was the perfect medium for this book, because it allowed for the young reader to visually understand what exactly about Cece’s appearance was so embarrassing to her. I think it also made Cece profoundly relatable. Kids will adore her for her honesty.

One thing I loved about this book is that Cece doesn’t always understand what is going on, especially at the beginning. When Cece first gets sick she’s only 4 or 5 years old, so she doesn’t really get where she is or why. She doesn’t even notice that her hearing is gone at first. I think middle-grade kids will understand her loss of hearing better by experiencing it vicariously in that way.

My absolute favorite thing was that this is neither a “regular” story that just happens to feature a deaf kid, nor is it a story that is 100% about being deaf. Cece goes through a mix of normal kid stuff and complicated things related to her deafness. For example, she deals with fake friends, but she also has to figure out how to deal with people who want to be her friends but treat her weird because of her deafness. She experiences normal anxieties about being different, but they are compounded by the fact that she also has these weird hearing aides. She loves TV, but she can’t really understand it.

Cece is also not simplified as just being a sweet child. Like any kid, she has bouts of attitude, gets stubborn when there’s something she doesn’t want to do, breaks the rules sometimes, and turns her hearing aides off when she doesn’t want to listen to people anymore. But she does have her moments of sweetness, and her desire for a true friend is especially endearing. The last page left me a little misty-eyed, I admit.

My one critique of this book is that it’s a little dated. Which makes sense since it’s autobiographical, but Bell did little to catch kids up or to give them background knowledge about the time period. Since technology for hearing aides has changed quite a bit in the last 40 years, and since large portions of the plot revolve around teachers leaving their classes unattended for 30 minutes at a time, a little bit of context would be worthwhile, in my opinion.

I loved this book, I loved Cece Bell’s voice, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough for young people.

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