"Are you crying?" my wife asked me as I put down El Deafo, I was less than halfway through it.
"No," I said, "it's just dusty in here or something."
It was a lie, of course. El Deafo is really amazing and it will affect you greatly, unless you've got a heart made of a burned out hornet's nest, that is.
Here's the deal: Cece is your average child growing up in what can be surmised as 1970s United States. Then, at the age of four, she contracts meningitis and loses her hearing permanently.
She's provided with a device called a Sonic Ear, something that allows her to hear what her teacher is saying. Cece is understandably self-conscious of the device, as it's the 1970s and pretty much everything was made to resemble a Cadillac.
On top of this, Cece's family moves to a small town, meaning she has to start over, making new friends and trying not to go crazy as her classmates and teachers treat her trick gloves. When I was a kid I used to watch a film called "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. I was much too young to be watching it but hey, I was a latch-key kid and once I figured out how to use the remotes on the satellite dish it was game over.
Anyway, there's a scene in that film that has stuck with me for over 25 years. Gene Wilder plays a deaf man, and he's being interrogated by a cop. The cop is being very condescending, and speaking to Wilder in a slow, almost childish tone. Wilder responds to this by mimicking the cop's tone. The cop then turns to Richard Pryor and says "Why is he speaking to me like that?"
Pryor says, "Because he's deaf, not stupid."
When Cece has to deal with people like the cop in that movie, she reverts to her superhero alter-ego, El Deafo, a person who says what she feels and stands up for herself in all situations.
Through it all, Cece describes her struggles with sign language, reading lips, understanding what is going on her favourite tv shows and surviving school like everyone else. There is a through-line, though, one that we all face: The quest to find a good friend, someone who will accept us for who we are.
This is what Cece seems to struggle with more than anything in this story, choosing someone she really digs and wants to hang out. Some of her friends are too bossy, to obsessed with her hearing aids, too manipulative, and so on.
El Deafo is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel, for whatever reason Bell decided to make her characters into rabbits. We don't need to know why, it's just the way it is and after a while you become so familiar with them that you wouldn't have it any other way.
Bell's ability to pour what is undoubtedly a very personal story onto the page in such an effortless, engaging way is the sign of an amazing artist and I was ecstatic to get in the Library and shove it in the hands of students I knew would love it before the term ended for the summer.
I can't wait to continue doing so in September.