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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs El Deafo


Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
El Deafo
by Cece Bell

So…yeah. No pressure. “Just choose your favorite of the two Newbery Honor books, Sophie.”


Don’t get me wrong—I was thrilled to learn that I’d be judging El Deafo by Cece Bell and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson….right up until they reminded me that I was going to have to choose a winner. *sob*

I love these books. I hug these books when I see them. I dove over people* to get ARCs of them at ALA last year.

(*Not really. I would never actually dive over people. I got that shoulder injury A TOTALLY DIFFERENT WAY.)

Seriously though, how could you not want to read something called El Deafo? And Jacqueline Woodson is one of my favorite writers, so Brown Girl Dreaming was a must-have, too.

Both of these books are middle-grade memoir, a genre I wasn’t sure really existed. Cece Bell describes her experience growing up deaf and feeling different; young Cece adopts the superheroic alter-ego El Deafo to help cope with the social isolation that comes with wearing a hearing aid. Jacqueline Woodson traces her childhood path from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn, and captures the coming-of-age discovery of her writer’s voice along the way.

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of memoir for young readers, and wondered how such a thing might be received in the industry at large. And it only gets more interesting from there—Brown Girl is written in verse? El Deafo is a graphic novel? For this genre-expanding extravaganza alone, I tip my hat to these two writers.

I spent a long time reading Brown Girl Dreaming. It lived on my nightstand for a matter of weeks while I read part of a section each morning. I’ve heard many readers comment that they couldn’t put this book down—and I won’t deny that it has a page-turner quality—but for me it was a book to savor, piece by piece. Perhaps I didn’t want it to end. Perhaps I wanted to wake up to Woodson’s poetry every day for the rest of my life. Perhaps the depth and beauty of her words was too overwhelming to swallow in great gulps. I don’t know.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a stunning literary achievement, and not enough can be said about that, but I also found it deeply comforting. Woodson brings to life the smallest, most intimate moments of childhood, and reminds us that the seemingly simple, everyday things are the stepping stones to who we will become. In this novel, I sense a child who knows herself and knows where she comes from. She is both confident in her voice and full of wonder at its discovery. I found so much warmth and reassurance in young Jackie’s thoughts, and Woodson’s use of language is so strong that the very shortest poems (How To Listen) were among my favorites. I expect to read this book again and again, and I hope that soothing feeling will be there for me every time.

El Deafo, on the other hand, I tore through in one long sitting. It was easier to do that because of the pictures. I should admit that I’m not a big reader of graphic novels. Strangely, I think I have the problem of being a reluctant reader of stories told in pictures. I’m a word person. I enjoy the task of making up the images, and seeing it play out in my head. A graphic novel requires building a different set of reading skills, one that doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t know where to look first—at the words, or the pictures? Sometimes it seems like you have to look twice at everything to make sure you understand how it all fits together. But it turns out that El Deafo is a great graphic novel even for those not too familiar with the form. I didn’t feel confused at all.

Suffice it to say, I fell in love with this tiny rabbit. Her struggle was unique to her, and yet familiar—a very young person trying to figure out the world and where she fits. Moving forward day by day, nurturing the profound hope of being seen and heard and loved and appreciated. I was particularly fascinated by how Bell balances young Cece’s internal life with the things going on around her in her world. The use of illustrations afforded a special opportunity for this kind of juxtaposition. Her angst and her efforts to connect rang quite true with many of my young experiences trying to make friends and fit in. I rejoiced as she found her first true friend, and I tumbled with her into despair over the possibility of losing this person. I don’t exactly feel comfort in reading this book overall, instead it’s a palpable ache of recognition—the stunningly accurate portrait of how it is to feel awkward, lonely, stuck in a bubble.

These books touch two very different, very important places in my heart. I have always been an outsider looking for friends and a place to belong. I have always been a brown girl with dreams. I’m thrilled to pieces that both of these books ended up on the Newbery Honor platform, and I wish they could hold hands and skip into the next round together here, too.

Alas, this is a Battle.

These books both made me laugh. They both made me cry. They both made me want to tell my own stories better.

What it comes down to for me is: Which side of myself do I most want to honor today? The part that is introspective, deep, and expressive, or the part that wants to venture out and join the world, hoping to find a place to fit?

It turns out that I want to be part of the world today. And so, the winner is…. EL DEAFO.

But you should ask me again tomorrow. And the next day. We’ll go best two out of three.

— Kekla Magoon

Out of my three favorite books of this year’s battle, two of them are competing against each other here!

Despite the fact that bunnies are not my favorite choice of characters in a graphic novel, they really did add to the the story that much more. As Magoon so accurately pointed out, it’s part of the underlying importance of ears and hearing in the book, and they do add to that light-hearted nature of the book. El Deafo’s funny, cute, and whimsical touch intertwined with its touching storyline and its hilarious (and empowering!) superhero scenes just blew me away. Brown Girl Dreaming was just amazing. I love poetry when it’s written well, and it definitely was in this case. Just like El Deafo, it gives me a completely different perspective on life. Both Cece and Jacqueline completely immersed me in their worlds, in their feelings, and that is, I think, the mark of a good book.

I really want to say I would have chosen differently, as I liked Brown Girl Dreaming just the same. It eventually comes down to which book will appeal to a larger audience, and El Deafo does that. I hope that Brown Girl Dreaming is the winner of the Undead Poll!

– Kid Commentator NS

It’s remarkable that, for Magoon, Brown Girl Dreaming should be the “comfort” book and El Deafo the “fitting in” one. Both books can be comforting and anxious at once. For me, El Deafo more immediately conveys “the palpable ache of recognition” (wonderful language). Yet, as an admirer and writer of poetry, Jacqueline Woodson’s introspective memoir – that gave her the strength to reach outwards – will likely stay with me longer. Both are exemplary of this new, exciting genre, “middle-grade memoir,” but I also wonder about room for expansion. West of the Moon is almost a fairy-tale memoir, of Preus’s Norwegian family and heritage. Port Chicago, while clearly nonfiction, can read like a deeply troubled narrative. Magoon, in her concise and insightful decision, manages to convey that these are issues all humans deal with somehow. Best three out of four – four out of five, with The Crossover (MG) jumping out immediately as a contender for Undead – for MG readers. Bravo!

– Kid Commentator RGN




  1. This was the hardest, hardest match. I had to put my hand in front of my computer screen to keep from skipping to the decision. Then I got to it and literally put my hand on my chest and said Oh my god.

    “Woodson brings to life the smallest, most intimate moments of childhood, and reminds us that the seemingly simple, everyday things are the stepping stones to who we will become.” So true it brought tears to my eyes.

    The consolation as I read was that whichever book went down would return as the Undead. Right? RIGHT?

    • Omg, tell me about it! I’m doing everything within my willpower to not worry about what the Undead will be EVERY DAY. I swear… If Brown Girl Dreaming doesn’t come back as the Undead I might (no, I will) either scream or punch something.

  2. Oh, my, I’m in shock. I loved both of these books but I would absolutely have chosen Brown Girl Dreaming.

  3. Yep

  4. Sam Bloom says

    I think I made the wrong undead pick… =/

  5. Sam Bloom says

    But yeah, this was an amazing judge’s decision. One of many this year!

  6. Battle Commanders, FYI, some of the direct links to this post aren’t working. I had to sneak in through a comment for today’s decision.

  7. GO EL DEAFO!!!! YES!!!!!!! Not hearing has been called the invisible disability. So what better way to make such a disability visible than a graphic novel?

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Such a tough match up for any judge!

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