Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

After seeing Cece Bell speak at the Decatur Book Festival -- first about diversity in children's literature and later about writing graphic memoirs -- I was really looking forward to reading her new book, El Deafo.

Here's the summary from the back cover: 

"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 the school -- in the hallway ... in the teacher's lounge ... in the bathroom!  This is power.  Maybe even a 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?"

Overall, I enjoyed El Deafo's humor and sensitivity, and I loved Bell's illustration style -- lots of color and clean lines.  Plus, it's wonderful to read a book about a character's experience with (dis)ability that's actually written by a person who has experienced that (dis)ability.

Most of all, I savored the afterword, in which Bell describes the process of writing her memoir and all of the thought and feeling that went into it.  First, she explains the ways in which she tampered with "fact" to make a more readable memoir:

"It’s also important to note that while I was writing and drawing the book, I was more interested in capturing the specific feelings I had as a kid with hearing loss than in being 100 percent accurate with the details.  Some of the characters in the book are exactly how I remember them; others are composites of more than one person.  Some of the events in the book are in the right order; others got mixed up a bit.  Some of the conversations are real; others, well, ain’t.  But the way I felt as a kid – that feeling is all true" (n.p.).

I really appreciate her honesty about the "nonfiction" writing process.  No matter what other writers might tell you, nonfiction is never pure, unadulterated Truth.  Memoir writers aren't really writing about what actually happened -- they're writing about their interpretation of what happened.  Everyone has a different perspective about an event, even if they all witnessed and/or experienced the same thing.  So thank you, Ms. Bell, for being real.

Sounds about right.

Later in the afterword, Bell states: "There are lots of ways to be deaf.  And there is no right or wrong way ... I am an expert in no one's deafness but my own" (n.p.).  She nails an important point there -- we all need to realize that everyone's life experiences are different.  Even if two people seem to belong to the same "culture" (Deaf, African-American, Latin@, European-American, teacher, parent, etc.), their experiences, perspectives, opinions, and values can differ greatly.  When it comes down to it, you are about your own life.

Although I loved these elements of El Deafo, I have some questions about other aspects of the book. At the book festival, Bell said more than once that she chose to use rabbits in her book to make her characters more universal and relatable.  During my time studying children's literature, however, I have read and heard opinions that portraying (dis)abled characters as animals in storytelling can be "othering."  For example, depicting a deaf person as a rabbit in a text, as Bell does, is problematic because it can make that character seem "inferior" and less than human (A. L., personal correspondence, September 14, 2014; Yenkia-Agbaw, 2011, p. 99).

Also, some scholars and fans of popular media culture have found the trope of "portraying [a] character with an impairment as 'extra-ordinary'" to be troubling (Brittain, 2004, n.p.; Cumberbath & Negrine, 1992; Keith, 2001; Quicke, 1985; Saunders, 2000; TV Tropes, 2014).  These critics feel that (dis)abled people should not be seen as less or more than "typically abled" people.  As you can see from the front and back covers of El Deafo, Bell applies this trope to her memoir by presenting her hearing aid as a superpower and herself as a superhero -- someone who is "extra-ordinary" because of her deafness.

Another example = Daredevil

Now for my questions: Is it OK for Bell to use animal characters when portraying her experiences with hearing loss because she's telling her own story and choosing to depict herself this way?  And why did she -- in a book intended to present her experiences with deafness constructively -- align herself with the oft-criticized (dis)abled-character-as-superhero trope?

I'm still processing all of this information, so I don't have any firm opinions.  However, I do like engaging in dialog inspired by provocative questions.  So what do you think?

[Also, many, many thanks to A.L. for sharing her extensive knowledge about representations of (dis)ability in children's literature with me!]


Brittain, I. (2004). An examination into the portrayal of deaf characters and deaf issues in picture books for children. Disability Studies, 24(1). Retrieved from

Cumberbatch, G., & Negrine, R. (1992). Images of disability on television. London, UK: Routledge.

Keith, L. (2001). Take up thy bed and walk: Death, disability and cure in classic fiction for girls. London, UK: The Women's Press.

Quicke, J. (1985). Disability in modern children's fiction. Cambridge, MA: Croom Helm.

Saunders, K. (2000). Happy ever afters: A story book guide to teaching children about disability. Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

TV Tropes. (2014). Disability superpower. Retrieved from

Yenkia-Agbaw, V. (2011). Reading disability in children's literature: Hans Christian Andersen's tales. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 5(1), 91-108.

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