The origin of the “Superhero” is always one of overcoming obstacles and using them to your advantage: Batman had to deal with the loss of his parents, Spiderman was bit by a radioactive spider. And Cece, the breakout star of the children’s graphic novel, “El Deafo” had to contend with being the only kid in school who suffered from profound hearing loss.
Cece Bell, the author and illustrator of “El Deafo,” chronicles her experiences as a young girl growing up with a disability – one she got after a severe case of meningitis when she was only 4 years old. Noticing her daughter was beginning to retreat into herself, Cece’s mother bought her a “Phonic Ear,” a very clunky 70’s style hearing aid that a very small Cece was forced to lug around at school every day. Though she felt extremely uncomfortable carrying around such a large device (a giant box strapped to her chest), she did inherit a super cool superpower: the ability to hear everything. As her Phonic Ear was also attached to her teacher, Mrs. Lufton (who wore a microphone and transmitter), Cece soon realized she was able to hear all the juicy details of the “adult world” that her fellow classmates were just not privy to private conversations in the teacher’s lounge, Mrs. Lufton mumbling curses under her breath, even the sound of the “flush” after she used the restroom. Once her peers discovered her superhuman secret, Cece became their ambassador, and “El Deafo”… was born.
But why a graphic novel versus a standard illustrated children’s book?
Bell notes, “This is the perfect medium for [this story] because of the speech balloon. For example – if as a lip-reader – if I’m wearing my hearing aid and I’m looking right at you speaking, I understand every word you say, because I’ve got some sound coming in and the visual clues from your lips. So in a graphic novel, that speech balloon would be understandable to everybody, what you were saying in that balloon. But if I maybe had my hearing aid out and wasn’t looking at you, your speech balloon would be empty, because I wouldn’t know what you were saying.”
Most importantly, however, Bell wants to share the message that deafness is something to be embraced: that the things that make us different also make us special. Though some people “might secretly or openly think of [hearing loss] as a disability, and that’s fair and honest,” she wants the reader to know that, as a disabled person, it’s important to stretch beyond your community and find a way to connect to one’s able-bodied peers as well.
Not only is “El Deafo” an incredibly brave and fantastic book, the American Library Association just awarded it the Newbery Honor Book for its “outstanding contribution to children’s literature.” This marks the first time the committee has ever recognized a graphic novel for the award, a decision that will undoubtedly affect publishing for decades to come.
Buy a copy today and share with the superhero in your life!