Book Review: El Deafo by CeCe Bell

CeCe Bell won a Newbery Honor in 2015 for her graphic children’s novel El Deafo. It is a must read! I had the pleasure of attending her talk on how El Deafo came to be at Hollins University. I spoke with her at length afterwards. She is an absolute delight, and her genuine smile and sweet spirit made me feel like we had been friends for years.

Summary: El Deafo is an autobiographical graphic novel about CeCe Bell’s life with hearing loss. Bell walks us along her childhood path; beginning when she is four and suffers from the meningitis that takes most of her hearing, then enduring a few years of elementary school with a giant hearing aid. Bell captures the roller-coaster of emotions a typical young child who wishes to fit in experiences, which are then greatly magnified by her own self-conscious thoughts.

Theme: Acceptance. The entire book, her struggle resonates with every reader, “Oh, why do I even care what other people think?” Right from the start, she is worried about how the hearing aid affects her appearance: “Emma and I have always looked different from each other, but in ways that didn’t matter […] And now? Now we look a lot different, and in a way that does matter. To me, at least.” CeCe must learn how to navigate the world with hearing loss, “Simple conversations are so difficult.” It’s confusing, frustrating, and daunting; but sometimes she finds humor to get her through, and sometimes it takes another person pushing passed her barriers. At first, she is with other students with hearing aids, “everything is still so new, and so different, for all of us. Most of the time we are lost, drifting along on our own planets. But we are together in the same universe, at least.” Then, alone once again, she must learn to accept herself.

There are several reasons why I believe this book is important for young readers. One of which is the creative introduction of hearing loss/deafness to children. Picture books provide an absolutely essential role in helping young minds expand and explore their world and experiences. The concept of others not seeing, hearing, or thinking the same way is hard to grasp at a young age, but also very important to teach.

Another reason is the important internal dialogue she gives. Readers see her reactions to how she is treated, good and bad. Reading the first-person story about how awkward CeCe felt with her hearing aids, and how the words of those around her could build her up or tear her down helps create empathy in the reader. It makes them ask, “Are my words helping someone else feel important and accepted, or am I the one who makes someone else cry and feel alone?”

In today’s struggle against bullying, there are some wonderful picture books and guides for parents who wish to teach their child how to handle a situation, and also to not be one themselves. I also suggest using stories like El Deafo, and Wonder, and the many other wonderful stories that center on a child with a disability. Because these stories do not have the focus on and obvious message against bullying. CeCe actually spends most of her time making us laugh at the silly and unique way she learns to accept her hearing loss and annoying aids. The small instances of harsh moments are merely mentioned as part of the story. The reader takes an interest in CeCe, cheers for her, laughs with her, cries with her, and feels the words personally. What better way to show someone the power of actions and words?

CeCe Bell encouraged me in my own writing by admitting El Deafo was difficult to write. She told me some stories need to be told, despite how hard it is. I am very grateful she was able to prove her strength and excellence as a writer and give us El Deafo!

What are your thoughts?