El Deafo


  • Title: El Deafo
  • Author: Cece Bell
  • Illustrator: Cece Bell
  • Awards: Newberry Honor, Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids


Cece Bell set the bar for graphic novels as the author of El Deafo, the first graphic novel to receive the Newberry Honor.  Author and illustrator of eleven books, Bell is a highly sought after speaker at national conferences and in classrooms across the United States.  As an advocate for the deaf community, Bell is able to de-stigmatize deafness through her public speaking, writing, and art.

Here is a video of Bell talking about her book, El Deafo:


El Deafo takes the reader on a journey with the young protagonist, Cece (yup!  This is a loose autobiography based on the author’s childhood!).  The book jumps into four year old Cece’s world as she spins and dances, without a care in the world; until she is suddenly struck down by illness and brought to the hospital.  It is discovered that she has meningitis which results in her losing most of her hearing.  As this is a graphic novel, the author reveals Cece’s hearing loss through the lack of dialogue but with speech bubbles intact.

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Intended to be a guide for the hearing world, El Deafo takes the reader step by step through the ways Cece is taught to navigate her new world: how to use visual cues, context clues, and gestural cues, and the fact that even with all of these skills it is still difficult.  Cece exhibits the resilience of a superhero when she gets her Phonic Ear, and again educates the reader about how it works and feels.


Some may think the topic of a child losing her hearing would make for a somber book, but Bell stays true to the resilient nature of a child as Cece encounters friendship difficulties, her first crush, the dreaded makeover at a sleepover, and the horror of being able to hear her teacher go to the bathroom due to their “technology connection.”

A heart-warming book that both the hearing and non-hearing alike will cherish, El Deafo will connect with a variety of readers due to the myriad of themes and topics discussed: self-image, identity, special education, pull out classes, belonging, acceptance, friendship, superheros.  



  • Autobiography
  • Graphic Novel


Bell’s use of language is wonderful, the tone and word choice is playful and engaging; however, I didn’t notice the word choice or syntax to age with the protagonist.  A discussion about narrator’s impact and hindsight would be helpful for students to analyze why the author made that choice.

Combining word choice with images, Bell masterfully depicts the protagonist’s world.  


The selection of rabbits as the race for the characters would be a symbol worth delving into, researching rabbit ears, hearing strength, etc.  Why would Bell choose that animal over all of the other animals out there?



This novel is certainly study worthy, if for no other reason than the author’s use of language as mentioned above.  Additionally, it would be a powerful example of showing, not telling, for character development.  Yes, there are pictures to help show, but it’s Bell’s word choice that reveals the sense of humor and tenacity the character has.

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As a secondary teacher, I am ignorant to the grade level appropriateness for primary placement, but I predict it would be a strong addition to a class that uses the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  I would use it in my 6th grade Language Support class and excerpts of it up to twelfth grade to study author’s craft.


There are endless ways El Deafo can wrap its arms around the reader due to the vulnerability and heart of its protagonist.  This isn’t a book about a victim; this is a book about a survivor who has things to say to the world which will resonate with a variety of readers.  It gives hope to the wary, strength to the weak, lessons to the ignorant, and friendship to the lonely.


The one piece that caught my eye was a harmless joke between friends during a sleepover, but teachers wouldn’t want to be caught unaware about it.



The focus in this book is not family dynamics.  Cece’s older siblings are mentioned a couple of times, and her dad is rarely mentioned.  Her mother is the primary family member character, and the reader sees how their relationship is impacted by both common growing pains and by the mom’s attempts to support her child (for example, taking her to sign language classes) while the child resists those attempts.  


Cece is strong female role model – focused, a superhero named “El Deafo,” working hard to do the right thing, academically driven, and independent.  While at a sleepover the other girls want to give her a makeover; rather than ignoring her hatred of makeup and done up hair, Cece speaks up for herself and demands that the girls leave her alone.  Cece works through many of her problems internally, imagining that she is a superhero, and doesn’t always speak her truth.  As she evolves as a character and gains communication skills, she begins to find her voice and stands up for herself and what she believes.


The young protagonist has lost all power: she struggles to hear others, struggles to comprehend what she does hear, and struggles to say what she is thinking or feeling.  Power is maintained through communication in El Deafo, and until Cece has time to improve her comprehension skills and begins taking risks to speak, she remains at the mercy of others.  However, she is a brave kiddo and quickly learns that is stronger than she ever knew and that she could be a superhero on the outside as well as on the inside.





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