Cece Bell’s new graphic novel El Deafo is a masterpiece. After a brief childhood illness leaves her deaf, Cece makes her way through elementary school and middle school with a large apparatus under her clothes and cords leading to her ears. El Deafo presents what happens during those years but also captures Cece’s thinking and imagining as she interacts with friends, family, teachers, and an environment rendered incomprehensible at times by her malfunctioning hearing aid.
Cece Bell’s child-self earns a reader’s sympathy without melodrama. She is a sensitive child, but she is also resourceful. She is reluctant to speak at times, but her mind knows exactly what needs to be said, and her alter ego El Deafo lets us know that side of Cece too.
The other kids in El Deafo are presented authentically in how they treat Cece. One is so self-absorbed that she virtually ignores her friend’s deafness. Another exaggerates her speech, not knowing that makes it more difficult for Cece to lip-read. There is the dreamy neighbor boy who Cece crushes on, but we eventually see that he has a rebellious side too, and he brings out a side of Cece that hasn’t previously surfaced. El Deafo also includes a bully who is mean to Cece in a way that has nothing to do with her deafness. Cece knows true friendship when it finally arrives, and that emotion comes through clearly.
Visually appealing almost to the point of cuteness, El Deafo will engage a wide range of readers who struggle with finding friends and feeling different from everyone else. As El Deafo helps its readers see themselves and others more clearly, this nudge toward greater empathy becomes a gift in the form of a graphic novel.