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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

El Deafo

I was glad to see this one listed among so many of your favorites, as it is in mine.  But how do we discuss this graphic novel for the Newbery?  Let’s look at some of the language in the criteria.

Definition #1: . “Contribution to American literature” indicates the text of a book. It also implies that the committee shall consider all forms of writing—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Reprints, compilations and abridgements are not eligible.

Okay, that is pretty clear cut.  The award, which is “awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year”…  is really awarded to the author of the most distinguished  contribution in text for children.  The definition goes on to say that “all forms of writing” should be considered. Considering this award was created in 1921 (and that in 1937 they had to create another one for picture books),  I see an invitation to be in broad in our thinking of “literature” as possible.  Just, er, the “text” part.

Farther down, in criterium number one we get (emphases all mine):

1. In identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as text, in a book for children,

a. Committee members need to consider the following:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.

I see here that we are to argue El Deafo based on the merits of those bulleted points, as evidenced in the text.  And, that the text only needs to show distinguished literary qualities in the the elements pertinent to this text.   So, if setting is portrayed primarily through the images, does it need to stand out as distinguished in the text as well? I’d suggest not.  Criterium 2:

2. 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.

Okay, we may consider the picture when they make the book less effective… but may not in any other case.  That means that in every darned panel, we need to ferret out what it is the text is doing.  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.    If, in a series of panels, the character development is solely communicated in the illustrations: fine.  We won’t talk about character development there, because it is not pertinent to the text.

What part does the text play in developing the story?  Is it distinguished in the part it plays? 

That is my own interpretation of what these criteria ask us to do.  The committee each year is charged with interpreting the criteria, so unless I was chair every year, there’s no way I can guarantee you that this is how the committee is looking at this.  It’s just how I would.  So, with that out of the way, let’s discuss El Deafo.

I’ll jump in, with the humor.  Here is a favorite scene for many. While the illustrations heighten the humorous tension, I think it’s really carried in the words, as you can see here:

“Best–or worst–of all, I can even hear Mrs. Lufton when she USES THE BATHROOM.”



tinkle tinkle. “Oh no! Hee Hee!”

“Aaah…What a relief!” tinkle tinkle tinkle

WOPWOP “Toilet paper?”

“I know what’s coming!” zzzzzzip!


Much of it is in the comic timing of text as laid out in panels, and is evidenced throughout the book. (Another favorite on mine is on page 61, when her prayers for a new friend are answered.)

Cece’s emotional arc of self-awareness, her coping mechanisms and challenges in navigating friendships, are all delivered in a voice that is as lively in the text as in any non-graphic novel this year.  I think the voice outshines, for instance, that in RAIN REIGN, and matches that in NEST (neither of which we’ve really discussed, but feel free to jump in).  The plot works as it needs to in a memoir, doing a fine job of taking us through the main story of the character development.  All these things I think I can find evidence for the text.   How about you?


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. I’ve just started reading this, and so far my most cogent response is–love the bunny ears!

  2. Oh, how I wish this really had a chance! I felt Smile should’ve received a nod in its time as well. That language about only considering illustrations if it makes the book LESS effective is so odd. What does that mean? Can someone give me an example of a chapter book this applies to?

    El Deafo has had a powerful impact in two classrooms at my school. One class has two boys who use hearing aids connected to the teacher’s mic. The other has the daughter of a woman whose experience is extremely similar to CeCe Bell’s. When I passed my copy on to the mom, she said the book made her weep and affected her more profoundly than any other in her life.

    At this point, I would love to see the ALA announce a new award for graphic novels. They are here to stay, I think, and people are using them in fantastic ways.

  3. Genevieve says:

    Fantastic book. But I don’t see it as likely to win on text alone. Agree that a graphic novel award from the ALA would be a positive step.
    Wish El Deafo had won the Kirkus award, but glad it was a runner-up at least.

  4. Nina, I love that you tried with this one, but I’m still dubious that you could convince the critical mass needed on a Newbery Committee right now that this one trumped others we’ve been considering. But I love the way you pulled out the text for one of the funniest sections. I’m thinking there are more, but it is hard for me not to think of the text in concert with the art.

  5. Eric Carpenter says:

    I may be in the minority but I preferred another of this year’s graphic novel memoirs THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER!’s plotting was more interesting and I thought the characters seemed less afterschool special. 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.) This is not to say I don’t think EL DEAFO is anything other than an amazing book that is easy to put into a variety of readers hands. It’s just that I don’t think the text alone is a distinguished contribution to children’s literature.
    I wonder if the case for EL DEAFO is harder to make in a year that includes SISTERS and THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER. Can we pull text out of these other GNs and find equally funny and equally emotionally true passages? Probably.
    If EL DEAFO is receiving more praise from critics and readers (which it certainly deserves) it’s likely because of the emotional weight of the story which is not part of the newbery criteria.
    Does anyone else prefer SISTERS or THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER to EL DEAFO?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I thoroughly enjoyed SISTERS but liked EL DEAFO even more and think it has a better Newbery argument. I responded to SISTERS as a “graphic novel” whereas my response to EL DEAFO seemed more purely “novel”-like. Not that I am knocking the illustrations in EL DEAFO, but how many readers are loving this book primarily because of the pictures? I am hard-pressed to name instances in EL DEAFO when I was floored by something just on visual grounds. I think the reason why people love this book is precisely the elements named by Nina and the criteria: theme, information, characters, style… I would love this to win something, and think in some ways it might be easier to build support around this than my other top picks like REVOLUTION or THE RIVERMAN or others’ frontrunners like THE FAMILY ROMANOV and BROWN GIRL DREAMING.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      I’m equally fond of SISTERS but feel it’s even a harder sell for Newbery, as most of its strength is in the visuals…or the integrated story. I do think it’s possible to demonstrate disntinguished text-only in EL DEAFO. Still, it seems like presenting half of a person in a beauty contest.

      Rather that an award for graphic novel, I’d prefer to somehow see our “literature” awards encompass them better….they’ve been ghetoized too long, What would happen, for instance, if you wrote out those definitions in the Newbery limiting it to text? It starts to bleed into the Caldecott in weird ways, is what happens… but why does literature have to be text based?

      • Hear, hear. This constriction in the Newbery criteria drives me nuts (as you well know:). When it is a work of literature of which the whole involves design and visual imagery, it makes me crazy that we have to act as if it isn’t there. I’d much rather see ALSC grapple with this for Newbery rather than simply pass it off to a new award. I find some of the most exciting work in literature being done in new ways, graphic novels being one of them and I want them to be considered for our top award without having to contort ourselves by spending endless time trying to blackout aspects of them.

        You say it is like judging half a person — I say it is the reverse of the emperor having no clothes; in this case we are pretending he has none when he actually does. That we can only comment upon them if they are fitting him particularly badly, perhaps making his remarkably toned body look pudgy or worse. I feel it forces a false evaluation of a book — can we all be absolutely 100% honest that we are absolutely not considering the non-text stuff? That we’ve turned off our minds, hearts, brain to do so? We can say we aren’t, but our minds may not work so neatly.

        Getting back to EL DEAFO (stop ranting, Monica:), I can’t think of the story without envisioning those bunny ears. The text is charming and moving as is the art. They belong together completely. And while I did very much like SISTERS and THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER, I liked this most of all. It felt absolutely perfect for the intended audience. Even as Cece copes with her physical limitations we never get the sense that she is wallowing in self-pity about them. She puzzles and is sad about the lose of her friend, but keeps going. This is a pretty upbeat child who epitomizes resilience. I just admire so much the way author/artist expresses something that is so universal for children — the desire for a good/best friend. Even as Cece copes with other things this plot line moves through the book arriving at a very satisfying ending. The reasons behind the schism aren’t forced in the slightest, but so realistic. Love that. Can I argue that this is achieve purely in the text? Not so far.

      • Sam Bloom says:

        No, DON’T stop ranting, Monica! I couldn’t agree more. I would be really interested to see what the ALSC membership-not just the leadership folks, I’m talking EVERYone-would think about this. Too bad we can’t do a straw poll of some sort.

  6. Joan Raphael says:

    I will state that El Deafo should qualify for the Newbery and if the committee had any guts, would win. What is more universal to childhood than the search for real friends? In many ways, that is the theme of the book so why shouldn’t it qualify for a Newbery? As many have pointed out, I was moved more by the prose than by the comic panels. Yes, of course the fact that El Deafo is hard of hearing is vital to the story. But the theme is still finding a friend and every kid can relate to that being a difficult job!

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Two comments on EL DEAFO

    In her analysis, Rachael Stein says the following.

    “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 would like to disagree. If we can consider factors such as the use of CAPS or italics (as Destinee does in her comment on THE WITCH’S BOY) not to mention line breaks and text placement in verse novels, I think Cece Bell’s technique is fair game. And I think we’d agree it’s a great fit to theme and effective, appropriate, and innovative. Last year I mock-nominated BATTLE BUNNY because I thought it did interesting things with text. I’d say the same here. Cece Bell herself mentions this as a factor in deciding on the GN format (see here for example “On using a graphic memoir to tell her story”:

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    The other comment I’d like to make is in regards to the rabbits. I can imagine some dissenter who has issue with the rabbits invoking “Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective,” particularly because (to my recollection–I don’t have a copy handy) the text does not mention rabbits.

    I’ve been thinking about the discussion on books like REVOLUTION, WEST OF THE MOON, ABSOLUTELY ALMOST, et al. where sensitivity of portrayal may be an issue. I think one of the key differences among readers is how much a text needs to do to build up their inner conception of the book’s tone, setting, characters, etc. One reader’s efficient, spare style may be another’s failure to flesh out and create dimension. One reader’s lush and vivid description is turgid and slow to another. I think this is doubly important in differing reactions to portrayals where sensitivity is an issue. I think the genius and necessity of the rabbits is that it sort of levels the superego playing field for all the different kinds of readers who will be approaching the text from different backgrounds. I feel like Cece Bell is telling us, “don’t worry, it’s really OK. They’re just rabbits. I want to be telling you this story and I don’t want you to feel bad for any reason.” (Ironically, Cece Bell herself seems to have worries about the reaction from both the deaf community and those who treated her in a way that made her feel bad. Maybe the rabbits help her with this too). It’s a little like MAUS, no? I realize this is not a pro-argument as it doesn’t have to do with the text. But I hope it might meet any argument that the illustrations may somehow weaken the text.


  1. […] Nina and Jonathan are wondering whether the graphic novel El Deafo could pick up a Newbery. (No. I mean it could, but it won’t.) Now that I’ve recused myself from ALA Medal deliberations, Heavy Medal and Calling Caldecott make me itch to publish a retrospective: “The year was 2000. What won: Bud, Not Buddy; Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. What should have won: King of Shadows; Hush, Little Baby.” Like that. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t need ANY fingers to count my friends by the time I got through. […]

  2. […] the voice, one that I realized is very much brought out through the writing. As Nina Lindsay notes here, “Cece’s emotional arc of self-awareness, her coping mechanisms and challenges in […]

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