“Superheroes might be awesome, but they are also different! And being different feels a lot like being alone.”
When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. The next year she starts kindergarten at a special school for deaf kids where she learns lip reading. But when first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Trying to fit in at a new school is challenging enough, but Cece also has to wear the phonic ear, a large, two-part hearing aid that allows her to hear her teacher so that she doesn’t have to lip read all the time. Cece desperately wants to be taken for normal, but the phonic ear constantly draws attention to her deafness, and makes friendship complicated. Trying to make sense of her difference, Cece conjures up the character of El Deafo, who turns her disability into a superpower. Then Cece’s dream becomes a reality when her classmates realize that Cece can hear their teacher wherever she is in the school thanks to the microphone component of the phonic ear.
El Deafo is autobiographical but stylized; it draws on Cece Bell’s own personal experience of deafness, but the characters are portrayed as cartoony rabbit-like creatures, giving it a certain distance from real life. The graphic novel format gives Bell ample opportunity to experiment with the visual representation of sound. When the batteries in Cece’s hearing aid start to fade, the big black letters in the speech bubbles fade to grey and then go blank. When people fail to look at Cece so that she can read their lips, the speech bubbles are empty. But best of all is the way Bell shows that while Cece can sometimes hear the sounds just fine, they aren’t clear enough to understand; these speech bubbles are full of nonsense words, leaving the reader just as lost and confused as Cece.
While El Deafo is definitely about hearing loss, friendship is also a major theme. Cece just wants to find a friend who will treat her normally, and not make a big deal about her deaf friend, or do inconsiderate things like turn the lights off at a sleepover, leaving Cece unable to lip read. Cece’s first friend doesn’t make a big deal about her hearing, but she is also bossy and doesn’t want Cece to have any other friends. Her second friend is much less bossy, but she calls Cece her “deaf friend” and speaks so loudly and slowly that Cece has trouble reading her lips. However, there are complications and misunderstandings even with those friends who do treat her well, often because Cece struggles to pluck up the courage to speak up for herself.
Stories about kids with disabilities tend to contain a certain amount of bullying, but while the other kids in El Deafo are sometimes rude and inconsiderate, they are rarely outright mean. However, their behaviour still often results in Cece feeling excluded and lonely. Mostly, however, El Deafo is about Cece’s own internal conception of what it means to be deaf and therefore different. As much as she needs to find a good friend who accepts her and treats her well, she also needs to accept herself. One of the most heart-breaking moments in the story is when Cece refuses to learn sign language because she is worried people will stare at her. Bell is careful to point out in the afterword that these are her own personal memories from childhood, which aren’t always fair to the other people in the story, who were mostly well-intentioned but didn’t necessarily understand what they were doing wrong. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power; El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her. Cece’s struggles with communication are complicated by her deafness, but not solely due to it, and many of her experiences will be recognized hearing readers, as well as members of the deaf community.
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