This book is considered a graphic novel memoir by author/illustrator Cece Bell. The story follows Cece from age four, when she suffers severe hearing loss as a result of a bout with meningitis, through the end of fifth grade. The fact that the story centers on hearing makes the choice to use rabbits as the characters all the more charming. Through Bell’s delightful drawings, Cece’s pre-illness life is all about wearing her favorite polka-dot swimsuit, watching TV, and having fun with friends. It’s 1975.
Post-illness, Cece struggles with her hearing loss in a number of ways, shown deftly in the panels where she tries in vain to understand TV programs, her friends, and family. She sees a speech therapist who helps her learn to read lips, but reading lips is hard when there aren’t any context clues, people cover their mouths, shout, or talk over each other.
Enter the Phonic Ear. Cece’s life changes dramatically. The Phonic Ear is a giant device she has to wear during the school year when her teachers are connected via a wearable microphone. At first, Cece is devastated she has to wear such an enormous piece of equipment. This advancement makes understanding classes so much easier, but Cece’s experience as an oddity when all she wants to do is fit in comes across loud and clear.
When Cece’s crush learns about the benefits of her “super hearing” device (Cece can hear the teacher wherever she is in the building and whatever she’s doing), she becomes a classroom sensation. Because it’s the mid-1970s, classic After-School TV Specials are featured in some panels. One of those specials involves a young boy with hearing loss and others call him “Deafo.” Cece turns this insult around and embraces her super-hearing and difference for what it is: interesting and individual. She transforms herself into “El Deafo” in her daydreams and in real life, conquering fears, making new friends, and finding some middle-school romance.
I was able to project this story on the screen (thank you, Sora reading app!!) and read it aloud for students early in the school year. They loved it and I did too. We were in the middle of the book when Dr. Thomas Rashad Easley, the hip-hop forester and educator, presented to students and that made the conversations about diversity even richer the next day. I also loved exploring with students how many of Cece’s friends, while annoying to her, were really well-intentioned. We were able to talk about Cece’s resentment and how to stand up for herself—communicating her needs and wishes with others so they could have the opportunity to change their behavior—and ultimately build better relationships.
We all shared a long list of how “ableism” was on display in the book while also listing all the ways the world has advanced to help not only those with hearing impairments, but also people with dyslexia or those learning English for the first time. Subtitles, people! Texting! Zoom chat! And so much more. This book was overflowing with social-emotional connections and life lessons for students. Fly away to get your copy of El Deafo now and listen to Cece.