November 17, 2017

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SLJ Chats with Cece Bell About her Graphic Novel Memoir ‘El Deafo’ | Up Close

Cece BellWith ample humor and a keen sensitivity to the emotional melodrama of early adolescence, Cece Bell’s graphic novel memoir, El Deafo (Abrams, 2014), offers a window into growing up deaf in 1970s suburbia. In addition to struggling with hearing aids and coping with annoying stereotypes about her difference, Bell describes mortifying moments, first crushes, mean girls, afterschool specials, feats of bravery, and the search for true friendship. In a season of great graphic novels for middle-grade readers, Bell’s tale resonates and inspires. It also made SLJ’s 2014 Best Books and Top 10 Graphic Novels lists.

El Deafo is your very personal story, and it took you over five years to create this book. Why did it take so long?
There are lots of reasons for this. I am very sloooooow at drawing—storytelling comes more naturally for me than drawing does, alas. This was my very first graphic novel, and the learning curve was steep. I think I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Tundra, 1993) three or four times before plunging in. Then there was that week or so that I just stared at the contract, wondering if it really was a good idea to actually sign it. And finally, I was working on several other projects during that same time period. Probably some other stuff that I’m forgetting to mention, too. I’m hoping that if I do another one, it won’t take quite so long. Maybe four years and eleven months?

SLJ1412w-COL-UpClose-BellYour book is autobiographical. So are we safe in assuming that you are, in fact, a human? Why did you choose to make your (absolutely adorable) characters bunnies? Rather than, say, guinea pigs, unicorns, or plain old people?
I am a real live person, believe it or not! Bunnies have giant ears and excellent hearing. My portrayal as the one rabbit whose giant ears did not work—that’s kind of the way it felt. Exaggerated? Sure. But I wanted to convey the feeling of really standing out when I didn’t want to stand out at all. I’m finding out now that the whole bunny-instead-of-human thing helps the book resonate with kids of all ethnicities, too. I love that. And, like you say, bunnies are adorable. You can’t go wrong with bunnies.

What was the hardest part of this story to tell?
Talking about my bad attitude [on] learning sign language was easily the most difficult part of the book for me. My attitude has changed completely since childhood, thankfully. I wanted to be sure that I explained why I felt the way I did, and that I showed that a) I was a bit of a brat about it, and b) I was missing out on something that could have been helpful to me.

It was also difficult revealing some of my youthful feelings about certain friendships I had back then. Mostly because I worry about how those people might respond if they see the book. Youch. I know I wasn’t at all fair to these friends, but I made it my mission to portray as honestly as I could how I felt as a kid—irrational thinking and all.

Autobiographical graphic novels present librarians with a unique challenge: Do we shelve it with the biographies or the graphic novels? Where would you like to see your book?
Definitely with the graphic novels. Lots of kids naturally go there first when they enter a library.

What do you want hearing folks to take away from your story? What would you like readers who are deaf to take away?
That there’s no wrong or right way to be deaf. This book portrays one experience—my own. There’s a whole spectrum of deafness, of the deaf experience, and of different ways that one might deal with it—just like there’s a whole spectrum of the entire human experience. Everyone has their struggles, and everyone has their triumphs, too. And anyone can be a superhero.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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  1. Joey Vaughan says:

    Cece Bell came to visit our students at Texas School for the Deaf, and she did an amazing job sharing her story. The students were completely intrigued, and since she left, the #1 book requested at our library is, you guessed it, “El Deafo”!
    It’s a great read for kiddos and adults of all ages. I’m reading it to my two kiddos – one is 5 and the other 10, and they adore it!