KidLitCripCrit – El Deafo

El Deafo is a very funny, real, own voices autobiographical graphic novel about a deaf rabbit.

If Mama Zooms is personal for us, this is out of our comfort zone – neither of us is deaf. Or a rabbit. (Though the characters are really humans with rabbit ears.)

So does this qualify as an own voices review? Well no. Though maybe being disabled gives me an edge. I’ve read all the reviews by deaf, hard of hearing & culturally Deaf people I could find – do seek them out.

While I don’t believe Cece Bell identifies as disabled, in my opinion this is own voices at its finest. An intensely personal story – Cece becomes deaf, goes to school, friendships are made & break down. It is one 1970s, messy & individual experience of deafness. (With a small ‘d’ – a note at the end explains she is not part of Deaf culture or community)

Personal stories can have such power – especially when it comes to disability.

Inside pages - Cece sits with 2 friends. One shouts 'CEE-CEE IS MY DEAF FRIEND. SHE IS A-CT-UALLY ONE OF MY BEST-EST FRIENDS'
“Cece is my deaf friend. She is actually one of my bestest friends.” Words every deaf child longs to hear shouted, I’m sure…

There is no effort to make it palatable or easy for hearing readers. We see the many ways Cece’s fellow pupils get it wrong & wince – the shouting (which does not help), the patronising comments… and we learn as a by-product. The best way, surely.

Cece holds up signs with simple messages on, two read 'shouting is NOT good', & 'hands in front of mouth are also bad news'. The hearing characters speak back in nonsense, eg 'foo gah bee ahfah'.
Shouting: not helpful.

For someone like me – never a disabled child, no experience of non-mainstream education – Cece’s experience of classes with other deaf children is eye-opening. What we might naively imagine to be a negative experience – segregation – instead seems enormously validating. When she’s moved into mainstream education: 

‘I will never again be surrounded by kids like me.’

It seems a terrible loss.

Another close up of inside pages - Cece, a child-rabbit, stands in a classroom with other child-rabbit friends with hearing aids. Writing at the top reads: 'When I say good-bye to my friends at Fisher school, I do not realise that I will never again be surrounded by kids who are just like me.'
“I do not realise I will never again be surrounded by kids who are just like me”

The danger of a single story is definitely a thing. #CeceBell makes clear in a note at the end that this is her deaf experience – not the D/deaf experience.

Stories of disability are still so few they’re always in danger of being universalised. The 70s tech shown is outdated & no longer in use – probably obvious to an adult, worth spelling out to children. And her ambivalence about sign language should be understood as an individual reaction to circumstances, not a norm.

I know the title El Deafo puts some off (me included tbh) but I’d really urge you to read it. Mainie, 5, loves it, but it’s really suited to older kids & adults.

Lucy Catchpole

(First posted on Instagram on the 31st August 2020)

If you’d like to, you can order El Deafo here through our Bookshop affilate link: https://uk.bookshop.org/a/3366/9781419712173

[Image descriptions:

Image 1: Mainie (a 5yo white girl) is wearing a red cape & rabbit ears & holding a copy of El Deafo. She’s looking off to the side and is standing in a superhero pose. Text reads: weekly reviews by actual disabled people (not her – she is not disabled. And is 5.)

Image 2: Inside pages – Cece sits with 2 friends. One shouts ‘CEE-CEE IS MY DEAF FRIEND. SHE IS A-CT-UALLY ONE OF MY BEST-EST FRIENDS’

Image 3: Cece holds up signs with simple messages on, two read ‘shouting is NOT good’, & ‘hands in front of mouth are also bad news’. The hearing characters speak back in nonsense, eg ‘foo gah bee ahfah’.

Image 4: Another close up of inside pages – Cece, a child-rabbit, stands in a classroom with other child-rabbit friends with hearing aids. Writing at the top reads: ‘When I say good-bye to my friends at Fisher school, I do not realise that I will never again be surrounded by kids who are just like me.’]

An entirely unnecessary image

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