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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 3: El Deafo vs The Family Romanov

JUDGE – ELIZABETH RUSCH

El Deafo
by Cece Bell
Abrams
The Family Romanov
by Candace Flemming
Schwartz & Wade/Random House

Shoot me now!

That was my first reaction when I was told I would have to choose between El Deafo by Cece Bell, a stunning graphic novel memoir about growing up with severe hearing loss, and The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, a superb nonfiction narrative that brings a royal family and a hunk of Russian history to life.

The problem is not so much that the books are too different to compare, though they may seem so at first glance. El Deafo is a brightly colored comic with bunny characters and The Family Romanov is a serious, gripping historical narrative woven together from primary sources. But as a nonfiction writer myself, I immediately recognized what these two books really represent: the perfect form for fascinating true stories, almost perfectly executed.

I’m not particularly interested in aristocracy or Russian history but when I dove into The Family Romanov, I was immediately filled with admiration for the skill with which Candace Fleming introduces us to Nicholas (the boy who did not want to be Tsar), Alexandra (the cold beauty who becomes his wife and advisor) and their charming and spirited children, including their youngest, the hemophiliac son Alexei, heir to the throne.

Clearly written and accessible, Fleming’s rich use of primary source materials beautifully brings alive the daily routines, voices, experiences and quirks of the imperial family. Not surprisingly, the Romanovs drip with jewels and a sense of entitlement.  But well-chosen quotations make the Romanovs’ humanity and their affection for each other leap off the page. The girls address the empress as “my sweety darling Mama;” Alexandra greets her husband with “My beloved, Soul of my soul;” and the Tsar calls his wife “Lovey-mine” and rejoices at the birth of his children with exclamations such as: “God, what happiness!”

Fleming also brilliantly paints a backdrop of the tumultuous world the Romanovs lived in but seemed not to know.  I particularly appreciated the Beyond the Palace Walls sidebars (diary and journal entries from struggling Russians), which contrasted starkly with the ease and luxury of the Romanov’s life and highlighted the family’s isolation and their cluelessness to the plight of just about everyone else in Russia.

My one quibble with The Family Romanov comes halfway through, when Fleming only devotes a page and half (p. 79-80) to why the Tsar was known as Bloody Nicholas.  The numbers are startling: In about a three year period, Nicholas’s police and soldiers round up more than 100,000 people, executing more than 20,000. For these few pages, we get a glimpse of Nicholas as a cruel, calculating dictator who wanted his people to “feel the whip.”  Fleming writes: “Even children did not escape Nicholas’s terror. Police routinely rounded up workers’ children and beat them just to ‘teach them a lesson.’ “

The Tsar’s brutality and his delight in the butchery seemed uncharacteristic of the hapless family man Fleming shows us through most of the rest of the book.  And since such ruthlessness was a major justification for the later slaughter of Nicholas and his family, I would have welcomed a deeper examination of this side of Nicholas.

Still, Fleming helps the reader feel the simmering resentment, the abject poverty, and the chaos of war-torn Russia. When these forces come to a boil and spur a revolution, I found myself completely swept up the story. Nicholas does little to fight back. After abdicating his throne, his whole family is placed under house arrest, and  Nicholas “acts like school boy on vacation,” joking with his family about being an “ex-tsar.”

Tension builds as we see plans being laid for the family’s execution while the Romanovs remain clueless as ever. Though I knew how this story ended, I finished the last quarter of the book in one breathless sitting, reading in horror as Nicholas did nothing to address the revolution or to save his family.

In The Family Romanov, Candace Fleming offers two wonderful books in one—the intimate story of a fascinating royal family and the drama of the Russian revolution—both made stronger and more captivating by being woven together.  It is a spectacular literary coup.

In that light, El Deafo should not stand a chance. Even though I’m a big fan of graphic novels and the author of one (Muddy Max), I couldn’t imagine how a graphic novel could compete with such virtuosity and sophistication.

But El Deafo grabbed me from very beginning. Cece Bell opens with one vivid, charming page on her childhood, with all the characters drawn as humanlike bunnies. Little Cece sinks into illness on page two, her song lyrics drooping off the page. A meningitis diagnosis comes on page three, and by page four, the dialog text begins to fade, literally, as Cece descends into deafness.

The small bunny/child asks questions and is answered with empty dialog bubbles. She’s 4, she can’t hear, she can’t read, and she doesn’t know what’s going on around her or why her whole world has gone quiet. Then Cece’s own speech bubbles empty.  It’s a powerful, dramatic, visceral, moving introduction to Bell’s experience of becoming “severely to profoundly” deaf.

Graphic novels are a beautiful literary art form, a bit like picture books on steroids, where the marriage of the art and the words manages to make the whole so much more exquisite than the parts. Bell employs the form magnificently, so magnificently that while reading El Deafo, I felt as if someone were covering my ears, making me feel what it might be like to lose my hearing.

Through words and pictures, readers experience the challenges of lip-reading in dim light, at a distance, in a group. We see and feel what it’s like when a hearing aid battery dies in the middle of a conversation. (The words fade to nothing.)  Bell even shows us why talking more slowly and loudly makes it harder, not easier, for someone with hearing loss to understand speech.

But Bell does more than give readers an experience of deafness. She explores the nature of power and the price of belonging through the Phonic Ear, which gives Cece the ability to track her teacher’s movements all around the school. And Bell layers into her memoir common challenges kids face, such as how to make, choose, and keep friends; what to do when a sleepover goes awry; and how to talk to a crush.

El Deafo is no doubt an extraordinary depiction of hearing loss.  But it is also an insightful story about growing up and finding yourself that ultimately feels universal. Amazing.

So, now do you appreciate my problem? El Deafo and The Family Romanov are both absolutely brilliant books. (Read them!)

How could I ever choose? Put me blindfolded in front of a firing squad and I’d yell: El Deafo, No Romanov, No El Deafo, Romanov, El Deafo

BAM!

I’m dead. I guess El Deafo wins.

May I rest in peace.

— Elizabeth Rusch

I mean, seriously, can anything stand up to El Deafo? Cece is just a regular girl, whatever that means. She wants to have friends – and, eventually, she finds friends who aren’t afraid of her superpowers. She gets through it herself, the hard way, and El Deafo relates both her frustration, sadness, and simple, kid-like joy. Both the pictures and the words convey so much with incredible nuance; young Cece had a hard time learning to express herself, but, boy, does Bell do it wonderfully. Still, Rusch had one of the hardest choices of the round – firing squad, indeed! Romanov was utterly fascinating, somehow telling the story of a time, place, but most of all a family. You understand the family’s complete separation from the revolutionary and violent Russia of the early 1900’s. You understand their luxury, their faith, their fears. Yet mostly, as one servant girl says, they’re just ordinary people: a family. Like Rusch, I do wish that Fleming had said more about Nicholas’s motivations for ordering and condoning the massacre of Russian citizens – but he seems to have completely naively believed that they deserved to die. That’s so completely foreign to us, and so is the world the Romanovs lived in. Somehow, we get to understand the family, just like we understand Cece in El Deafo. But even with such high competition, El Deafo fully deserves it.

– Kid Commentator RGN

The Family Romanov and El Deafo… I really feel sorry for Rusch; this is one of the harder matches of the round to judge. The Family Romanov was one of my favorite books in the competition this year, as it portrays the royal family of Russia in the 1900’s in both an impersonal and deeply intimate way, especially highlighted in the alternating accounts from the elite and from the peasants. Ironically enough, the ‘outsider looking in’ perspective from the peasants shed more light upon the family than the narrative of the family’s life, perhaps because the intrigue around their tale is largely based around the citizens of Russia at that time. I loved the book, mostly because of how complex and engaging Fleming made the characters, as truth, in this case, is stranger than fiction. El Deafo, on the other hand, is a playful yet poignant memoir that, just like Romanov, was ground for me that I hadn’t explored. The emotionally driven plot really added to the focus on the way we treat other people, deaf or otherwise. I have to say, graphic novels aren’t the first books I’ll pick up off the shelf. Going into it, in fact, I was more or less lukewarm about the idea of it, especially when I opened up the book to see bunnies somewhat resembling humans. The illustrations reminded me of the Oscars this year. There was one performance for Best Original Song called “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. I will admit, I had to mute the TV after about 5 seconds of it, but that’s what the illustrations in El Deafo felt like to me, albeit less extreme. Irritating, but a perfect embodiment of the plotline. Drawings aside, El Deafo, told through Cece’s childish and memorable voice made me both cry and laugh out loud. While Cece at first just wanted to be a normal kid, she gradually learned to accept who she was, as well as finding some cool perks of the situation. That outsider feeling may never have gone away for her, but she did, in my eyes, manage to overpower those feelings of inadequacy and oddness by surrounding herself with people who loved her just the way she was. Although the decision of who should win must have been extraordinarily hard, ultimately El Deafo was the better book of the two.

– Kid Commentator NS

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 3:

EL DEAFO

 

Comments

  1. I am so relieved. Yes, The Family Romanov was a fabulous book, but El Deafo is a masterpiece.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    A coin flip? Really? I care way more about the reason for the decisions than the outcomes. Hate to see judges take the easy way out.

    • Hey Eric,
      Don’t worry, it wasn’t really a coin flip. I had a criticism of Romanov and none for El Deafo. The firing squad part was just a literary technique to make it fun to read and to connect my beginning reaction to my decision. Liz Rusch

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        Thanks for responding I’m glad to see that the decision was not a coin flip. I think my just awoken brain missed the subtlety of your literary technique. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads the daily judge’s decision on their phones as soon as the morning alarm goes off each day) Rereading it in the light of day it seems less of a coin flip.

        • I was also trying to capture how painful the decision was (firing squad!) and to point readers again to Romanov (firing squad!) though I had to give El Deafo the last word. But yes, indeedy, I could see that I may have been too subtle — even for someone who was fully awake 🙂 This was the first real book reviewing I’ve done (other than singing books praises during presentations) and I found it challenging but also satisfying. So honored to be part of this wonderful debate!

    • Did I miss something? I did not read this as a coin-flip-decision. I interpreted it as a metaphor for the judge seeing benefits of each and going back and forth in her mind. Until finally deciding that “El Deafo” was the stronger choice. Reading through the whole write up, I can see how she came to that decision with a weakness that she pinpointed within “Family Romanov…” With such strong competitors, it’s sometimes going to come down to splitting hairs.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        I guess I just wish she had remunerated the flaws (however small they are) in Family Romanov as a reason for her decision.
        To me, the going back and forth at the end read as she was able to forgive the few flaws she mentioned and holds both books in equal esteem and in the end just pick one title to move forward.
        I agree that this one was an impossibly hard decision. But isn’t that what we come here to read? I know I look forward to the esteemed judges putting aside politeness and explaining why they thought one book was better than the other.

  3. Sam Bloom says:

    I don’t know, Eric, in this case I think the judge can be excused. I believe this may be the most difficult first round match in BoB history. And now I’m bummed that I didn’t use my undead vote on poor, clueless Nicky and his ill-fated brood.

  4. Meredith says:

    This was a tough match for me. I really loved both of these books. But hey, at least my undead vote has wasn’t wasted.

  5. Joan Raphael says:

    YES! El Deafo beats back the Newbery curse! At least in the first round. I really loved Romanov and I admire Fleming, but El Deafo completely took my heart! Honestly, has anyone read any other gripping book about a kid who happens to be severely hard of hearing who simply wants a friend? It is a universal experience to try to find the just right friend. The Romanovs were anything but universal. Thank heavens. The flaw noted by both the judge and RGN is an important criticism. Other than that, the book is fantastic. However, no one seems to have found flaws in El Deafo other than those who don’t like bunnies. I feel for Fleming in that her book was wonderful. But El Deafo was great.

  6. I am SO HAPPY with this outcome. While I was less enthusiastic about El Deafo than some when the books were first announced (I really liked it but fell short of love), Monica’s pre-Newbery post on it made me take a second look and the love came. (I got over the rabbit thing.)

    But that’s not the sole reason I’m happy. Unlike the rest of you, I didn’t think this was such a hard decision as I really didn’t like The Family Romanov. A big part of why, Rusch alludes to in her analysis, although I think she only scratched the surface. I didn’t read the book until the day before Midwinter and was sad that I hadn’t read it sooner because I would have loved to discuss why I bounced off it so hard when others didn’t. Since finishing I’ve read some reviews from Marxists who didn’t like the Bolshevik portrayal and spoken with people who have a great sympathy for the royal family who didn’t like their portrayal. I guess one could make an argument that Fleming did an impartial job then. Except I’m not a Marxist nor a Romanov lover, and I was disappointed with both. If this were a fiction novel I would say that there was absolutely no nuance to any of the characters. Alexandra is Lady Macbeth. Nicholas has no depth. Rasputin is a fairy tale villain. The kids are like characters form a saccharine filled Victorian melodrama. Fleming did nothing to pop the mythos that surrounds the royal family in western tradition. She did nothing to further understanding of the way the peasants perceived and executed the revolution on a village by village level. She did nothing to truly explain (or try to understand) Russian orthodoxy and its influence on the people as well as the royal family. And this frustrates me. I wrote a paper on this for an Early 20th Century European Political History class I took in college and I was frustrated by my sources then too, which may have been why Fleming wrote it as she did. It seems to be the western default. Maybe there wasn’t any other way to go, but the lack of nuance to any of it really bothers me. It’s like writers look at this and say, “Russia. Who can understand it?” Throw up their hands and don’t even try.

    I don’t see how The Family Romanov gave us anything we didn’t already have. I know many people found it engrossing and compelling, but I found huge chunks of it to be rather boring. That may be due to my familiarity with the material, but I think truly compelling is compelling no matter how familiar one is with the subject matter.

    I can’t help but wonder if I’m completely missing something as I seem to be so far out of step with everyone on this.

    • She did nothing to truly explain (or try to understand) Russian orthodoxy and its influence on the people as well as the royal family.

      I will go on record as someone who had a huge problem with this, as a practicing Orthodox Christian. And I think Brandy really sums up my problems with this sentence: “Fleming did nothing to pop the mythos that surrounds the royal family in western tradition.” I wanted nuance and depth and instead got the same tired Western tropes. Clearly others disagree with me, but this is not a title I will ever be able to get behind.

  7. Lets pretend the family and country had been Catholic, with the same behavior and situation. I think the same result would have happened, eventually even if not identically to what did fall the Russian Orthodox family and country. While the religion may have affected certain events along the way, I really do not think it would have changed the outcome particularly. The fact is that the Romanovs were so out of touch with the world of starving desperate peasants, no matter what religion, that it is likely the population would have rebelled eventually anyway. I would guess that is why Fleming did not include the religious aspect. It would have made a complicated complex book even harder for the typical student to understand.

    • But the issue–or at least my issue–is not that Fleming didn’t include the religious aspect. It’s that she did include Orthodoxy, but in a way that I find very stereotyped and inaccurate. While I agree that there’s a lot going on this book, I would also argue that presenting someone’s religion accurately is a fairly reasonable expectation.

      (I should note, because I haven’t above, that I greatly admire Candace Fleming and have loved her books in the past.)

    • No you’re right Joan, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome at all. Pretty much all revolutions happen because the people in power grow out of touch with the needs of those they are ruling whatever the other surrounding circumstances. My point was the same as Maureen’s though. She used Orthodoxy as a way to paint a picture of Alexandra and Rasputin as not altogether stable. and it leaves the reader with a very poor picture of what it actually is. And given so much page time was left to this, balance would have been nice. It is one of the many places this book is lacking nuance. You say you feel this would lead to an already complex book being more complex. I say this book was never complex enough to begin with. It does have a lot of stuff in it though.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Coming to this discussion late since I was out of town last week.

        I wish you had read this book earlier, Brandy, so that we could have hashed it out on Heavy Medal. I’m not very convinced by any of the concerns mentioned on this thread. As Elizabeth notes, it’s not that Fleming doesn’t portray Alexander in a negative light, it’s that she doesn’t elaborate on it at great length due to all the other plot threads. It’s a question of balance. I never felt that sense of imbalance in his portrayal, and think he would still remain an enigma even if she did.

        I didn’t take the portrayal of Rasputin and Alexandra as representative of Orthodoxy at all. That’s a pretty big leap you guys are making there!

        I echo the praise for EL DEAFO in this decision and in the comments and it’s only a much easier decision for me to favor THE FAMILY ROMANOV only because I feel like despite everything it *did* win, I still feel like it was under recognized.

        • I wish I had too, Jonathan! Unfortunately, being a first round Cybils panelist the past two years has curtailed my ability to keep up with Heavy Medal as much as I did before. If I didn’t read the book before October, it wasn’t happening until January. And even then, keeping up with the comments while reading a whole MG book every day is just hard. But I wouldn’t trade it. I had lots of fun. 🙂

          I don’t think Fleming meant the portrayal of them to be representative of Orthodoxy. I don’t think that most readers would assume it was. I simply wanted another look at it. I taught a lot of students whose parents were Russian immigrants. I learned to be careful about this subject from them. But the Orthodoxy isn’t even my biggest issue with the book. I felt the whole thing was unwieldy and every part of the story lacked nuance and depth. It’s a big complex piece of history. As far as a resource for libraries and world history classes go, it is a great book to have. You aren’t going to find anything better. As I said, I researched this topic myself. There’s not much else out there. I just don’t think it has the sort of quality to garner the amount of praise it has received, especially when I compare it to Port Chicago 50.

        • To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get my thoughts on this across here; it’s a complex and complicated topic and I’ve been considering writing a blog post about it for some time and haven’t gotten there yet.

          For me personally–and I’m only speaking personally–the representation of Orthodoxy is a big deal because the kind of language that Fleming, probably unconsciously, uses is the same that is often used to dismiss my faith. I can’t remember any moment when Orthodoxy is discussed in a neutral or positive way (I’m happy to see counter-examples) whereas several times there are comments that seem to denigrate some pretty essential beliefs. While I don’t think this needs to be an issue for every reader–obviously it’s not going to be!–it was for me. And combined with the overall lack of nuance that Brandy mentions, it made a book I really wanted to be excellent fall short for me. Again, I don’t expect that all readers are going to agree with me, but my reading experience was not a pleasant one.

          Plus, EL DEAFO is awesome and I’m so happy it’s getting recognition.

  8. Every religion has its extremists. To say speaking about Rasputin is a put down of the religion itself is unfair to the religion. I think most reasonable people would understand that Rasputin was not a typical representative of his religion.

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