Thursday, December 08, 2016

El Deafo

This review is a guest post from Anupama Chandrasekaran. Anupama Chandrasekaran loves teaching, learning and working fewer hours. She has previously written for Indian and international news organisations from Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong and Chennai. This is her first review for Saffron Tree. A pleasure to add El Deafo to the disability-themed books of CROCUS 2016.

Book Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Published: 2014
Publisher: Abrams Books
Genres: Children's literature, Graphic novel, Autobiography
Awards: John Newbery Medal

Image Source: Google Books

“You won’t feel like putting it down, amma” said my precocious 9-year-old as I picked up El Deafo – a self-deprecating and poignant, autobiographical, children’s graphic-novel by hearing-impaired American author and illustrator Cece Bell (short for Cecelia Carolina Bell.)

As predicted by my in-house reviewer, I was riveted to 233-pager, guffawing, gasping and sighing as Bell’s tribulations unraveled. The 36-year-old Bell’s Newbery award winning story takes readers through the rough and tumble of middle-school friendships and the unforeseen superpowers of Bell’s hearing aid, making her conjure the name El Deafo – a phonic-eared superhuman -- for herself.

El Deafo’s azure book jacket with a rabbit-eared, humanoid caricature snagged my attention this autumn as I zig-zagged through the narrow aisles of Singapore’s Kinokuniya book store -- stocked floor-to-ceiling with fantasy, nature, anime, and you-name-it literature. I was looking for a funny yet soul-searching, non potty-humoured, children’s graphic novel that could zap the sight of my second-born being curled under yet another Captain Underpants comic book.

Bell, who long maintained a blog on her hearing-impaired experiences, was hugely inspired by fellow-American Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical comic book about a sixth grader titled, Smile.

The Virginia-based children’s book author and illustrator, who works out of a studio she calls ‘The Hermitage’, found speech balloons a precise fit to explain the aches and pains of her disability. In the 2014-published El Deafo she goes on to using it to its hilt.

There’s the instance where words from the speech balloons start fading as the battery of hearing aid goes low and then another point when her dialogue box is empty as she decides to switch off her hearing aid during a sleepover with an overly-chatty friend.

My 10-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son thoroughly appreciated this clever usage of word-balloons to illustrate the author’s hearing problem – an issue that had never crossed their mind. The plot of lost friendships, forging of new ones and the restringing of broken relationships, also struck a chord with them.

A few weeks ago, I bumped into a parent of a child who suffered from hearing loss. The mother agonised about a certain cacophonous classroom situation and how unsettling it was for her child. While I couldn’t completely comprehend what she meant then, I think I understand it slightly better now, after reading El Deafo. It’s a book that could be an eye opener for teachers and other caregivers.

Of course, as Bell herself admits, her book may merely be scratching the surface.

El Deafo may be about deafness, but it is “in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience....I am an expert on no one’s deafness but my own.”

This book could certainly be your first step to understanding these real-life superhumans.

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