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el deafo

12 february 2015

Cece Bell's lightly fictionalized graphic memoir El Deafo is a Newbery Honor Book for 2015. As in last year's Medal winner Flora and Ulysses, the protagonist is a loner of a preteen girl who imagines her way into a comic-book universe to cope. But in El Deafo, the girl is Cece Bell herself, who grew up to become a comic book artist. The exigence and ethos of El Deafo press a bit more insistently on the reader.

But also more subtly, because El Deafo avoids melodramatic plot arcs. It's a memoir of a few things that happened in a couple of years of a girl's life, the only heightened circumstance being, as the title would suggest, that this protagonist has lost most of her hearing. Meningitis at the age of four has left Cece unable to hear at all without a cumbersome, boxy hearing aid – and not able to hear much with it. She learns little American Sign Language, and perceives speech partly through lip-reading and partly via a microphone attached to her teachers.

That microphone, the Phonic Ear, is one of the superpowers that Cece embraces in her comic-hero identity. Her teachers take the device for granted after a while, which means that she can listen in on whatever they're doing, wherever they're doing it. No longer does her class have to fear the unexpected arrival of the teacher. Every time she steps out, Cece can signal that it's party time.

Much of El Deafo is concerned with Cece's peers' awkwardness around her, and her impatience with them. The author says of the childhood friends she represents (in composite fashion): "I purposely changed their names because I know I wasn't always fair to them, in childhood or in this book. I hope they forgive me" (Acknowledgments). That comment indicates that the book isn't about the absolute gravity, or depravity, of any of its characters. It's about kids being too young to deal with a peer's deafness, and the deaf child being too young to deal gracefully with their immaturity.

Bell also notes that the book is not a manifesto or a contribution to generalized knowledge about deaf children. "It is in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience. … I was more interested in capturing the specific feelings I had as a kid" ("A Note from the Author). I think personal writing works best that way. One is not particularly interested in oneself as special, or as an emblem for the general; one has individual experiences and presents them in a fashion that other individuals can relate to.

As always, then, one both can and can't relate. Hearing people don't know what it's like to be deaf, but can approach empathy via analogy and partial identification. Young Cece initially makes friends with people who don't care about her deafness, and eventually learns to find friends who might care, but can learn not to. A key sequence in the book revolves around Cece's friend Martha, who at first seems the perfect sidekick to El Deafo. She's the first friend that Cece takes much of an initiative in making. Yet when she blames herself for an eye injury that Cece sustains (which briefly turns her into "Helen Keller Lite" [165]), Martha draws away and has to be coaxed out of her trauma. It's a major growth moment for the protagonist, and by this point, over halfway through the book, the exposition is over and we relate to the world via a provisional identification with Cece, not against Cece's difference or "otherness." It's a well-handled episode in an engaging, upbeat, and often very funny take on one American childhood.

Bell, Cece. El Deafo. New York: Amulet [Abrams], 2014.