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Review: El Deafo

This title made it to our Top 10 2014 Best Graphic Novel list for good reason, it’s been cited on many other lists as well, including the Parents Magazine best books of the year.

El Deafo
By Cece Bell. Color by David Lasky
Abrams. September 2014.
ISBN 978-1-4197-1217-3
$10.95 244 pp.
Recommended for grades 4 and up

When Cece Bell was four years old, she contracted meningitis, which caused her to go deaf. Bell chronicles her early years as she develops skills to cope in a hearing world. Though she starts out in a specialized school, when her family moves, Cece is integrated into a mainstream education.

That is when she gets her special hearing aid, The Phonic Ear. The device allows her teachers to talk into a microphone worn around the neck and amplify the sound for Cece. Cece soon discovers that the “chords,” as she calls it, are so powerful that she can hear her teacher throughout the school building—even as they gossip in the teacher’s lounge or go to the bathroom. (I have worn a similar device quite a few times throughout my years as a middle school librarian, and I don’t think I will be able to do this again with a straight face! And there will definitely be a lot of paronia!) It makes Cece feel like she has super powers, so she dubs herself El Deafo.

But Cece doesn’t always feel so great. She feels different most of the time, and it is difficult for her to navigate a mostly hearing world. So even though some of the kids who offer friendship throughout her elementary years, are bossier than they should be, she goes along with it, because they don’t seem to mind that she’s deaf.

The trickiness of friendship feels so universal that at times, readers can almost forget this is a story about a deaf girl. The storytelling is seemingly simple and yet so powerful it will immediately engage an audience of middle-grade readers.

Bell depicts her characters as rabbit-like people. The animals are cute, especially as you study all the different hairstyles between he pointy ears, but the dress and mannerisms still scream “1970s,” which is when the story takes place. Although the characters are animals, the mannerisms, expressions, and emotions come through quite clearly, and the artwork works hand in hand to tell a poignant story through humor.

In our “What to Read Next” post, Robin Brenner suggested El Deafo for readers looking to read something similar to Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters, and I have to second her suggestion. This reads as a memoir or a coming of age story. It is a book that will have a prominent place on a library bookshelf—or a personal bookshelf.

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Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

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