I confess, at first it bothered me that all the characters in Cece Bell’s graphic novel El Deafo were rabbits. Just this morning, I as was passing my copy of the book along to the school librarian, I realized why Ms. Bell made them rabbits.
I was also a little put off by the language, as I usually am with graphic novels. Full honesty here, I find the writing in most graphic novels to be underwhelming. I almost always feel that more attention has been paid to the pictures, which can often stand alone, than to the writing. Because El Deafo’s intended audience is children in grades four through six, I’d say, this problem was even more pronounced. To top things off, one final red flag for me is the fact that El Deafo wants to teach its readers a lesson. Ms. Bell has an agenda here. I am not someone who enjoys books that are supposed to make me a better person. That’s what movies-of-the-week are for.
But I loved this book. I’ve been singing its praises for over a week now; I’ve convinced three students to read it so far.
Little Cece, lost most of her hearing at the age of four to meningitis. El Deafo recounts her struggle to get along in school with the help of a powerful and very awkward looking hearing aid called a Phonic Ear. This device is so large and so powerful that it marks Cece as different from the rest of the students no matter what she tries to wear over it while it gives her something akin to super hearing. She can hear her teachers when they leave to room for a cigarette or to go to the bathroom. Beyond this struggle, El Deafo is about Cece’s attempts to find friends and to keep them.
I liked both story lines. Cece is such a great girl that I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be friends with her, so I really wanted her to find a friend she could keep. Her struggle to get by in a hearing world was illuminating. There were all sorts of moments that illustrated how difficult it is to deal with hearing loss without ever preaching or openly trying to make me a better person.
For example, her first sleep over. Cece is very excited to go to her first sleep over as any girl or boy would be. She manages to understand what everyone at the sleep over is saying most of the time, though it is difficult. Her non-school hearing aid, which is smaller than the Phonic Ear, only really works if she can look directly at the person speaking so that she can also read their lips. Things are fine until the girls have to turn off the lights for the night. Their conversation continues as we all knew it would, but Cece is completely cut off, alone in the silent dark while the girls around her chatter and giggle into the night.
El Deafo has many, many moments like that. I doubt many readers, be they fifth graders, seventh graders or people old enough to be their teachers will come away from reading Ms. Bell’s book without a greater understanding of what it’s like to live with profound hearing loss.
That probably makes us slightly better people in spite of ourselves.
And, just in case you’re still as in the dark about the rabbits as I was, their long ears are meant to focus our attention on hearing even when all we’re doing is looking at the pictures.