El Deafo by Cece Bell
Published: 2014, Amulet Books
Genre: Middle Grade Memoir
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When she was four, Cece Bell was hospitalized for meningitis. Shortly after she was released, Cece’s parents began to realize that her infection had caused severe deafness. El Deafo is Cece’s memoir of how she struggled with hearing loss during her childhood.
El Deafo is the nickname/superhero persona that Cece gives herself. Cece is given regular hearing aids to wear while at home, but her doctors do not think those are sufficient for her to use at school, and so she’s also given a Phonic Ear. The Phonic Ear consists of a hearing aid box she straps across her chest, earbud-like cords that attach to her ears, and a microphone that her teachers wear. Cece quickly discovers that the Phonic Ear is not only extremely helpful in hearing all that her teachers say, but that if her teachers forget to turn it off during breaks, she can hear what they’re saying and doing all over the school. In a world where she can’t help but feel disabled (especially since everyone else is willing to propagate that perception in their treatment of her), the Phonic Ear has given Cece what effectively feels like a superpower.
A substantial portion of the book is devoted to Cece’s attempts to find the perfect sidekick for El Deafo. It’s not easy to search for a best friend, when the majority of people are unsure how to act around Cece. Although Cece not directly bullied, she still deals with some frustrating misconceptions. As the only person with hearing loss at her sign language class, she’s subjected to everyone wanting to practice their signing on her. Her peers view her with pity, misunderstanding, and even frustration themselves. In her head, Cece provides all sorts of explanations and comebacks for each instance that she’s subjected to a misunderstanding (often through El Deafo), but it’s understandably much more difficult for Cece to outright explain her situation and feelings to others.
Cece undergoes quite a few false starts along the way as she searches for the perfect sidekick. But each instance gives her a bit more of an understanding of herself, of her wants and needs and of what she desires in a friend. And, really, her search for a best friend can ring true for anyone who has been in a position where they’ve had to start over.
Perhaps to better illustrate how different Cece feels from her peers, Bell chose to draw everyone as rabbits (the better to display Cece’s Phonic Ear cords). While that authorial decision makes sense, the illustrations by and large are not the most appealing. They look a bit too cartoony, a bit too goofy, especially given the more serious nature of this story.
Still, this is a sweet and empowering tale, if a brief one. Cece’s journey is far from over by the end of the novel, but she’s made some great strides in both understanding herself and helping others understand how she wants to be treated.
Rating: 3 stars