I don’t usually do single titles for this series, but am making an exception for Cece Bell’s El Deafo, a graphic novel that is getting some serious Newbery buzz. About this affecting and funny childhood memoir, I wrote elsewhere, “While Bell doesn’t shy away from issues dealing with her hearing loss, doing so with wit and a refreshing lack of self-pity, it is the search for a good friend that will resonate most with young readers.” I’ve definitely been part of the buzzing (say over at Heavy Medal where I put it as the first of my 3 votes for their online Mock Newbery), but also have been dubious about its chances due to this part of the criteria that the award committee is required to follow:
2. Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.
However a rereading focusing on the text has changed my mind. First of all, I found it surprisingly easy to do. This is because the text carries the story completely. Those panels where it is necessary to look at the art to make sense of the text are not critical to making sense of the story overall. I also found in this reading a new appreciation for the voice, one that I realized is very much brought out through the writing. As Nina Lindsay notes here, “Cece’s emotional arc of self-awareness, her coping mechanisms and challenges in navigating friendships, are all delivered in a voice that is as lively in the text as in any non-graphic novel this year.” I agree wholeheartedly.
Something that really struck me on this rereading is Bell’s use of text boxes and speech bubbles. She uses them as a poet does line breaks, building scenes, expressing feelings, and so forth. Take this text from pages 44-45. Look at the way the text builds in the way that lines in a poem would do. (I have taken the liberty of using caps, parentheses, italics, bolding, and line spacing to differentiate as a poet might well do.)
I can hear everything my teacher says and does! In the classroom…
[IN] FOURTEEN-HUNDRED [AND] NINETY-TWO, COLUMBUS SAILED THE OCEAN BLUE
(I will gain the wisdom of the ages!)
…in the hallway….
GO STRAIGHT TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE NOW
(I will discover the secrets of my fellow man!)
…in the entire school building….
TINKLE TINKLE TINKLE
(I will –wait! Is she using the bathroom again? Ha! Ha!)
…and possibly in the entire world! And no one else can hear what I hear!
OK, CLASS! LET’S LINE UP FOR RECESS!
(Holy Hearing Aid, Batman—)
(I will amaze everyone –)
HEY! WHAT ARE THOSE THINGS IN YOUR EARS? ARE YOU DEAF?
So how about looking at El Deafo as one does a work of poetry and considering the textual elements in those terms?
Something else that wowed me on this rereading was the pacing. In the overall story arc, there is such fluidity in the way we move from scenes featuring her hearing loss to those about friendships to the smaller ones –say those with her siblings and mother— that offer texture to the overall book. This is a complex work and Bell elegantly weaves these different threads in and out of each other without ever dropping a single one. Highly distinguished plotting, I say.
Then there is setting, something that you’d think was largely established in the art. But not so, I say. I think there is a great deal that gives you the sense of the time period in the text. Go take a look at Pages 77 – 80 when Cece struggles to make sense of television; the shows that she watches are all of a particular time. In fact, they almost seem like little Easter eggs for adults as kids now are not going to even know what shows like The Waltons are. Not to mention, it is a way of watching television that doesn’t tend to happen for kids today, I suspect. And just about all of it is text-based. (I grant you the Star Trek panel is definitely funnier with the image, but not critical to the overall story. Also, it will mean more to adult readers than children of today. The rest of them work perfectly just with the text, I’d argue.)
Characters. Beautifully developed through text, especially in terms of friendships. Consider this on pages 48-49:
MY NAME IS LAURA, YOU KNOW, AND THAT’S A PRETTIER NAME THAN YOUR NAME. I THINK MRS. LUFTON IS BEAUTIFUL. YOU’RE A WEIRD KIND OF FUNNY. HEY! LET’S BE BEST FRIENDS!
It’s all kind of sudden, so I think about it for a minute or two…
[writes list of pros and cons]
Frenz with Laura?
Fritos kinda pushee
duz not mine heerin aid__ ______
… and then I say:
What else? Bell communicates vividly through text the ups and downs of childhood. While it is set in her childhood of a few decades past she has managed to beautifully capture certain universals — first crush, the need for a best friend, sleepovers etc. Take this little bit on pages 94-95 from the sleep-over when the other girls want to do her hair and make-up, something Cece hates, but struggles to get out of:
Y’ALL WAIT! CAN PEOPLE WHO WEAR HEARING AIDS ALSO WEAR MAKEUP?
(That’s the dumbest question I ever — wait a minute! Here’s my chance to get out of this!)
I don’t believe we can. Messes up the hearing aids, and stuff.
I THOUGHT SO!
And so, for the moment I rest my case.(I may update this post when I have more time.) This book, in my opinion, can absolutely be considered the most distinguished children’s book of the year using the current Newbery criteria.