We appear to exist in a golden age of children’s graphic novel memoirs. Which is to say, there are three of them out this year (El Deafo, Sisters, and The Dumbest Idea Ever). How to account for the sudden tiny boom? If I were to harbor a guess I’d say it has something to do with publishers realizing that the genre can prove a profitable one (hat tip then to Smile). We’re beginning to enter into an era where the bulk of the gatekeepers out there, be they parents or teachers or librarians, are viewing comics not as a corrupting influence but rather as a new literary form with which to teach. Memoirs are particularly interesting and have proven to be a wonderful way to slowly ease kids into the big beautiful world of nonfiction. That said, not everyone’s youth is worthy of a retelling. To tell a memoir well you need to have a narrative arc of some sort. One that doesn’t feel forced. For CeCe Bell, her first foray into graphic novels is also telling the story of her youth. The result, El Deafo, is a remarkable look at a great grand question (What to do when you can no longer hear and feel different from everyone you know?) alongside a smaller one that every kid will relate to (How do you find a good friend?). Bell takes the personal and makes it universal, an act that truly requires superhero skills.
Until the age of four CeCe was pretty much indistinguishable from any other kid. She liked her older siblings. She liked to sing to herself. But a sudden bout with meningitis and something changed for CeCe. All at once her hearing was gone. After some experimentation she was fitted with a Sonic Ear (a device that enabled her to hear her teacher’s voice) and started attending classes with other kids like herself. A family trip to a smaller town, however, meant going to a new school and trying to make new friends. When faced with problems she reverts to her pretend superhero self, El Deafo. With subtlety Bell weaves in knowledge of everything from reading lips and sign language to the difficulties of watching un-captioned television. At the same time the book’s heart lies with a single quest: That of finding the absolute perfect friend.
The rise of the graphic novel memoir of a cartoonist’s youth with a child audience in mind really hit its stride when Raina Telgemeier wrote, Smile. That dire accounting of her at times horrific dental history paved the way for other books in the same vein. So where did my library choose to catalog that graceful memoir? In the biography section? No. In the graphic novel section? Not initially, no. For the first year of its existence it was shelved in nonfiction under the Dewey Decimal number 617.645 T. That’s right. We put it in the dental section. So it was with great trepidation that I looked to see where El Deafo would end up. Would it be in the section on the hearing impaired or would the catalog understand that this book is about so much more than the Sonic Ear? As it happens, the book appears to be primarily cataloged as a memoir more than anything else. Sure the information in there about the deaf community and other aspects of living as someone hearing impaired are nonfiction, but the focus of the story is always squarely on CeCe herself.
The real reason I found the book as compelling as I did was due in large part to the way in which Bell tackles the illogical logic of childhood friendships. So many kids are friends thanks to geographical convenience. You’re my age and live within a certain radius of my home? We’re besties! And Bell’s hearing impaired state is just a part of why she is or is not friends with one person or another. Really, the true arc of the story isn’t necessarily CeCe coming to terms with the Sonic Ear, but rather how she comes to terms with herself and, in doing so, gets the best possible friend. It’s like reading a real life Goldilocks story. This friend is too bossy. This friend is too fixated on Cece’s hearing. But this friend? She’s juuuuuust right.
So why bunnies? Bell could easily have told her story with human beings. And though the characters in this book appear to be anthropomorphized rabbits (reminding me of nothing so much as when guest stars would appear on the children’s television program Arthur) there is no particular reason for this. They never mention a particular love of carrots or restrict their movements to hop hop hopping. They are, however, very easy on the eyes and very enticing. This book was sitting on my To Be Reviewed shelf when my three-year-old waltzed over and plucked it for her own perusal. The bunnies are accessible. In fact, you completely forget that they even are bunnies in the course of reading the book. You also fail to notice after a while how beautifully Bell has laid out her comic panels too. The sequential storytelling is expertly rendered, never losing the reader or throwing you out of the story. One librarian I spoke to also mentioned how nice it was to see that the dream sequences with El Deafo are always clearly delineated as just that. Dream sequences. Fantasy and reality are easily distinguishable in this novel. No mean feat when everyone has a twitchy little nose.
Maybe we’ve peaked. Maybe we’re seeing as many graphic memoirs for kids as we’ll ever see in a given year. But that can’t be, can it? We all have stories to tell, no matter what our upbringing looked like. There’s always some element in our past that’s relatable to a wide audience. It’s the clever author that knows how to spin that element into a storyline worthy of a younger audience. There isn’t a jot of doubt in my mind that CeCe Bell’s book is going to be vastly beloved by nearly every child that picks it up. Engaging and beautifully drawn, to say nothing of its strength and out-and-out facts, El Deafo is going to help set the standard for what a memoir for kids should be. Infinitely clever. Undeniably fun. Don’t miss it.
On shelves September 2nd.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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