Hearing loss, graphic novels, and Cece Bell’s El Deafo

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By Van Faust-Stephenson | vfauststephenso@radford.edu

This past week, several Radford services and clubs have invited the children’s author and illustrator Cece Bell to speak about her graphic novel El Deafo.

El Deafo is a dramatized retelling of Bell’s childhood experiences with hearing loss and how it affected her school and social life, alongside finding a true friend.

While from a quick glance, it may seem that the book is meant to teach kids about empathy and treating others with respect, Bell says her primary objective as an author and illustrator is to make people laugh.

As shown in the book, Bell was infected with meningitis at a young age, which caused her to lose 85 to 90 percent of hearing in both of her ears and, interestingly enough, not allow her to understand consonants. The book also helps by having speech bubbles, some spoken by a Bell’s character, which are completely void. A very creative yet simple method of conveying the event to younger audiences.

From there on, Bell was sent to a deaf classroom where the students were taught lip reading, as well as the reading of bodily cues, instead of sign language.

Though not heavily addressed in the book, sign language was not taught for a long time due to a persisting belief it would not allow the deaf to function in society fully. A belief which is obviously false, and quite offensive.

Bell, though she now sees sign language as an obvious good, hasn’t learned it due to not learning it in childhood. However, she can still talk and hear thanks to devices such as the Phonic Ear, which is a somewhat large hearing aid used by teachers in the school Bell transferred to, where she was the only deaf student, causing her to be nervous.

The transmission device, called the Teacher Microphone, was worn like a necklace by the teacher, and the receiving device, the
Phonic Ear itself, which Bell strapped to her stomach like a reverse-backpack.

Due to nervousness, she ended up hiding it under a layer of clothes and saying she was pregnant. Though, this happened in the first grade, so let’s give her some credit.

Her nervousness extends to her social life, driving her quest as mentioned earlier for a true friend, as she was put into a state of self-imposed isolation out of fear of being ostracized for her deafness. However, this is proven false later on as she gains multiple friends and Bell herself states the book’s moral is, “It’s better to share the things about you that make you different than it is to keep them tucked away.”

During the panel, Bell also talked about creating graphic novels and how El Deafo came to be.

As Bell says, some people can be irrationally angry when asked to repeat themselves, which can put you in a hard spot when someone is deaf or partially deaf. One such instance of this occurring in a Kroger that led to a moment of weakness and a drive to fight her own battles inspired Bell to begin on the book.

The title of El Deafo came not only from her childhood imaginary persona but also form a blog that Bell ran of the same name with the purpose of informing people who can hear how to talk to the deaf community.

The process of actually writing El Deafo went on for about five years, though Bell was primarily working on other projects for three of those years. Everyone’s creative process is different, but El Deafo’s went from simple plot outlines to more detailed notes about characters and worldbuilding to sketches of how the pages would be laid out and then onto a long art process of drawing the pages.

As for finding a publisher, when Bell was first starting out, she merely says she got lucky, and when sending out manuscripts to any and all publishers, Candlewick Publishers got back to her and accepted it. In El Deafo’s case, she already had her foot in the door and had been known as a children’s author and illustrator.

On the more creative side of things, the decision to turn the book’s characters into rabbits came from the use of a visual metaphor; as rabbits have large ears, it would make a rabbit that is deaf feel all the more out of place in a society that puts so much focus on the use of ears.

Further work had to go in when other countries translated the book, as some jokes just don’t transfer well. While some used translators notes, others decided to ask Bell to redo entire pages so they worked without added context.

Bell also states that while a sequel isn’t currently planned, there are still more stories to tell. Right now, Bell is working on an early reader series called Chick and Brain.

El Deafo and other works by Cece Bell, such as ‘Bee-wigged’ and ‘I Yam a Donkey!’ can be found on Cece Bell’s website at cecebell.wordpress.com. As well, Bell will be talking about writing these stories at the Radford Public Library on April 24 at 6:30 p.m.