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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

El Deafo

As Jonathan tallies up your Online Mock votes, I’d love to give some more discussion to EL DEAFO, since it didn’t make our shortlist this year but deserves more exploration. Many of you are stumping for it, Anderson’s Bookshop has it on their Mock Newbery list, and For Those About to Mock hopes it gets a fair shot.  But many people just have a hard time figuring out how to discuss it, and if the Newbery committee can’t either, then it’s not going anywhere.   For instance, I said : I do not believe that these criteria tell us that the text must carry the entirety of the plot, characters, setting and style.  Only that we must find those elements distinguished within the text…at least whichever elements are pertinent to the text”  and then I rendered the text from a scene in my blog post as straight text to show where I thought it was distinguished.   But For Those About to Mock got a little stuck here:

“...In many panels, the text is inseparable from the illustrations. That is, the text itself has visual qualities, and when you render it as plain text, you take away a large chunk of the meaning. Consider the page on the right, where Cece sneakily turns off her hearing aids to drown out her new friend’s bedtime chatter. Bell represents the muffling of the friend’s voice by depicting it in fainter ink – a technique which she uses (with great effectiveness) throughout the book. In a panel like that, the text is a visual object, and I don’t think we can consider it as text anymore.

I’m going to take exception with that last point.  Why can’t we consider that text having both textual and graphic elements?  Since Bell achieves the effect noted through a graphic application, that particular maneuver might not be an argument for distinguished text.   But I don’t think we need to expect that the text has to stand alone, rendered as plain text.   If it only means what it means graphically, fine.  The graphic achievement is not the one being measured, that is all.

So: don’t consider the text separate from the illustrations.  But when you put EL DEAFO next to … say….  THE CROSSOVER, THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA, RAIN REIGN…  does Bell achieve character, plot, appeal, theme, better than those, through what the text does in is textual way (not what the text does graphically?).  I think that Bell’s words themselves, however they are rendered, build more effective characterization,  and offer a wonderfully deep but humorous “interpretation of theme or concept”  somehow much more subtly than any of those three.  (Except maybe JOEY.  I hold these two par on those counts.  EL DEAFO has a more cohesive arc/plot that JOEY, perhaps.)


Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Leonard Kim says:

    I recently commented in the old EL DEAFO post and quoted the same passage from For Those About to Mock. Isn’t the use of caps or no caps, italics, line breaks, etc. considered fair game in a discussion of “text”? If so, I don’t see why the use of empty or fading speech balloons can’t also be cited as part of the text’s effectiveness.

    I also made an incoherent argument about the depiction of characters as rabbits. Because of this choice, I think the text bears almost all of the burden of “delineation of characters.” If Cece Bell had chosen to represent people as, well, people, a reader might be more inclined to infer characterization from things like facial expression, poses, etc. I guess it’s possible one can get as much expressive information from cartoon rabbits, but I think instead one becomes much more reliant on the (textual) voice. My original comment also tried to suggest that the use of rabbits rather than humans gave the author more freedom to tell her story without some of the conventions of “guidance counselor fiction” — and the text is better for it: truer and more complex (to the point that the author admits bracing for blowback for some of her representations.) This applies to theme, character, plot — many of the Newbery considerations — where I agree with Nina that EL DEAFO may be stronger than the other books she mentions and most others as well.

  2. I haven’t been able to revisit EL DEAFO recently, but my recollection is of a masterful development of plot. There is the thread of Cece coping with her hearing loss and the Phonic Ear, but most of all there is the quiet one of her wanting, finding, losing, and finding again a true friend. It stands out in my memory most of all, beautifully done, I thought. Also character development — there is Cece, tentative at time, never self-pitying, occasionally pensive, a lovely complex character. And that of her friend — that could so easily have not worked, a phrase set wrong and it would have felt forced, too homily-like, but she did it so it did work, so it didn’t feel at all didactic, or “guidance counselor fiction” as Leonard terms it. And then, finally, theme — absolutely done by spare and perfectly placed words. All done through the text, as I recall. Hmmm…writing this makes me think I probably should reread it again and then do a post advocating for it myself:)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I think Wendy introduced the phrase “guidance counselor fiction” in 2012 in reference to WONDER. I was reminded of it because Eric wrote of EL DEAFO in its first post, ” I did really like EL DEAFO but I thought the story sometimes verged towards GCF. (But last year’s PAPERBOY was entirely GCF and look what happened there.)”

      I agree with everything you wrote, Monica. Look forward to your post.

  3. Did the rereading and blog post: (Hope it is coherent as I was rushed to finish it this morning:)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Monica, I hope everybody reads this. Re-framing the text as poetry was really eye-opening, and overall I think you’ve made a really convincing case.

    • Genevieve says:

      This was tremendously helpful, Monica! And makes me wish I’d used my third vote for El Deafo. I loved it but wasn’t sure it could stand on the text alone. You’ve persuaded me.

  4. I think it comes down to how you define Text. For graphic novelists, the Text is the words AND pictures together. We use pictures like prose authors use adjectives. Instead of writing “very scary” bear, we draw it. Pictures are part of the toolbox for creating the story, as are the design elements such as panels, balloons, and effects like fading of the dialogue.

    Is the Text just words and sentences, or is it the cumulative result? Is it how the book affects the reader? I’m honestly asking, because it seems to be the sticking point in the discussion. When discussing a graphic novel for Newbery, everyone always bends over backwards to separate the words from the drawings but that seems to me like considering a prose novel but being required to remove all adjectives and descriptions first.

    • I and many others would agree. The problem is that they have to work with the criteria which state; “Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.” I read this to mean the illustrations have to seen as “other” even if you don’t agree with that idea. Of course, this is open to interpretation, but then you’ve got to get enough of the Committee on the same page for consensus to happen. So far I’ve been unable to figure out how to do that.

  5. I agree you can’t get around that “less effective” part (ouch). But it seems like the individual committees have some room. It seems unlikely that they just skipped over the comics in Flora, for example. But then again, maybe they did. It’s just a shame to consider a great book like El Deafo but be forced to ignore half of what makes it so great.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Matt: yes. Thanks for your comments. It is really about the committee coming to consensus on how to interpret that part of the criteria (and maybe that one phrase is due for a rewrite??). I’m trying to ask us NOT to bend over backwards to separate text from pictures. That’s like severing a daemon. Let them be their whole thing together. Look at the whole thing, and for the purposes of the Newbery, comment on what textual elements are at play in the whole thing. It’s still awkward, but vastly (I think) easier than trying to pull text/graphics apart.

      Monica’s post gives us a nice example of how to scramble/unscramble our brains on this. Don’t we consider line breaks, spacing, capitals, italics, in discussing poetry…or, for that matter, any prose? (The pacing of dialogue, etc.). So, let’s accept the pacing, emphasis, tone that is imparted on text in a graphic novel by its placement and appearance.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Here’s an interesting blurb on BOW-WOW’S NIGHTMARE NEIGHBORS (which is a comic in picture book form) that I keep thinking about in relation to the idea of text and the Newbery.

    A wordless, jazzy composition of complicated-yet-simple pictograms, lively cartoon rhythms and surprising pictorial puzzles. It isn’t just illustrated text, but genuine visual art–and it is all the more literary for it. I loved it (and I bet kids will, too.)


  1. […] resonate most with young readers.” While I’ve definitely been part of the buzzing (say over at Heavy Medal where I’ve put it as the first of my 3 votes for their online Mock Newbery) I’ve […]

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