By Kathi Mestayer
Why on earth someone would write a book and call it “El Deafo?” Well, it’s a memoir, of sorts—“El Deafo” is author Cece Bell’s secret name for herself. Bell created the moniker as an elementary school student, referring to the superpowers that her FM assistive-listening system gives her.
El Deafo is a graphic novel, illustrated by Bell. All of the characters (teachers, friends, nurses, parents) have bunny faces and ears. By the end of the book, it just seems normal (as does her hearing loss). The book’s designation as a 2015 Newbery Honor Book was well deserved.
Bell lost most of her hearing at age 4, in 1974, after a case of meningitis. Armed with hearing aids and a microphone she wears around her neck and shoulders she attends group classes to learn to speechread and gets better at telling the difference between bear and pear; sherry, jerry, and cherry; and sue and zoo.
Mainstreamed in elementary school, Bell has a “Phonic Ear” strapped to her chest, cables running to her ears, and a mic that the teacher wears around her neck to transmit the teacher’s voice to Bell’s ears.
That’s when El Deafo becomes a reality. Because of the FM signal, Bell can hear everything her teacher is saying or doing—anywhere in the school building, even in the restroom. (The sound of the toilet flushing is ear splitting.) She hears when her teacher is complaining in the teacher’s lounge about her classmates. She keeps these “superpowers” a secret from everyone until…well, I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
In the interim, Bell is a typical kid: making (and losing) friends, dealing with school and neighborhood dramas, feeling like an outsider, sharing a crush on a cool boy, and reuniting with her best friend ever. Bell tells it like it is, warts and all.
I recommend the book for everyone—especially those of us who have been, or are, “different”—and for all ages, tweens and up.
In fact (shhh!), I also have El Deafo superpowers! Once my FM system is up and running, I really don’t miss a word, even if I leave the room. Recently one speaker attached my mic to his lapel several minutes before he got on stage to give his talk, and I heard every single thing he said, including snarky comments about another speaker. Oops! Don’t tell anyone!
“El Deafo” by Cece Bell (published by Abrams, 2014) is available at bookstores and online.
Staff writer Kathi Mestayer serves on advisory boards for the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Greater Richmond, Virginia, chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. See more of her writing about hearing and science at beaconreader.com/kathi-mestayer.