Graphic Novel Review: El Deafo

Cece Bell just wants to live her life and make friends without her hearing aids getting in the way. This graphic novel memoir will appeal to a wide range of students.

El Deafo by Cece Bell, color by David Lasky.
Amulet Books Imprint, Abrams, New York, 2014.
Graphic novel memoir, 242 pages.
Newberry Honor winner, 2015.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 2.7 (worth 2.0 points)

Cecilia Bell just wants to live her life, make friends and have fun.  But she lost her hearing after a bout of childhood meningitis, and now she has to wear hearing aids.  Even worse, at school she has to wear the phonic ear, a special device that allows her teacher’s voice to travel from a microphone directly to her ear.  She soon discovers that most teachers forget to turn the phonic ear off, allowing her to hear them anywhere in the school building.  This leads to an imaginative fantasy life where she transforms into El Deafo, superhero with mesmerizing rosebud underwear and the power of feedback!  Meanwhile, in real life she’s trying to navigate friendships in the hearing world, a tricky business as the only student in her school who can’t hear.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Bell’s clean line combined with Lasky’s bright but not overwhelming color palette makes for great illustrations.  Although the anthropomorphic rabbits with human-style hair seemed odd to me at first, they quickly became normal as I adjusted to the art style.

The choice of depicting the characters as rabbits was perfect.  Their ears are constantly noticeable, and it nicely reflects Cece’s feelings about her hearing aids – in the illustrations her aids or wires are prominent at all times.  (This might not reflect the reality, in her picture at the back of the book, they are barely noticeable.)

There is not much racial diversity in this book.  Initially, when they are living in the city, some rabbits are dark-furred, but her family moves to a white suburb, after which point diversity is limited to blondes and brunettes.  However, Cece’s recurring feelings about being visibly different (due to the phonic ear) could be relatable for a student of color living or attending school in a predominately white area.

Spoiler Cece does have very negative feelings about sign language, and learning to sign.  I felt that it was appropriately portrayed as only her own personal childhood feelings (her family and friends were supportive and encouraged her to sign), however this could be a difficult issue to bring up for some students.  /Spoiler

This is a book about navigating friendship and growing up more than it is about hearing loss and using hearing aids at school.  It appeals to a wide range of children, and since she grows throughout the book, it could be used with any of the middle grades and possibly even high school students (especially those who struggle with reading).  There is some brief romantic interest, so I wouldn’t give it to a second of third grade student who isn’t ready to read about crushes, but 4th – 8th graders will enjoy this graphic novel.

One caveat I would give is to remind young readers that A) this is a memoir taking place in the past.  Some things have changed (most kids don’t have to wear a box to school), while others are still the same (if you speak weirdly to people with hearing loss it will annoy them).  and B) this is one person’s experiences with hearing loss, and it is written from the perspective of someone who is not in the Deaf community.  She explains this well in the afterword, but how many kids are going to read the afterword?

I purchased this book because I know my family will want to read it again, but I initially read it from the library.  Normally I post a lot more pictures of graphic novels (because the art style is as important as other elements), however having some technical difficulties, I just have the cover for this one.  Many pages from the book are available for preview elsewhere.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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