Author-illustrator Cece Bell has been making picture books for more than 10 years. This year she’s trying something new, as she recounts her childhood experiences with hearing loss in the touching graphic memoir El Deafo.

In the 1970s, the Phonic Ear, a bulky hearing aid that strapped to the wearer’s chest, was in vogue. For the hearing aid to work properly, the teacher had to wear a microphone, which amplified classroom discussions. The young Bell struggled with standing out and fitting in, as many children do. But when her classmates discovered that she could hear her teacher as she roamed the building, Bell’s powers as El Deafo (as she dubbed herself) were revealed.

We snagged a bit of Bell’s time to ask her about her funny and moving memoir.

After childhood meningitis left Cece Bell
deaf at age 4, she had to wear the
Phonic Ear, as seen in her
second-grade school photo.

When did you know El Deafo needed to be a graphic memoir and not a picture book or illustrated novel?
When I got started in children’s books, I wasn’t really ready to tell this particular, personal story right away. I wanted to “make it” in the biz without being pigeonholed as “that deaf author-illustrator.” I wanted to be known only as “that awesome author-illustrator.” I’d even take “that decent author-illustrator.” Eventually, however, I was ready to tell my story. When Raina Telgemeier’s Smile came out, I was inspired by it. Maybe a graphic novel would be a good way to tell my story, I thought. But what really sealed the deal for me was the fact that graphic novels tell so much of the story using speech balloons. What better way to show what I am hearing—or even better, what I am not hearing—than speech balloons? A speech balloon filled with words fading out means my hearing is fading; a speech balloon with nonsense in it means I’m hearing gibberish instead of words; a speech balloon with nothing in it means I am hearing nothing.

I love the moment when a girl asks you if you’re “death.” Do you still find today that you have to educate people about what it’s like to have a hearing impairment?
When I meet new people, they don’t often realize I’m deaf. But in some cases, when these new people do figure it out, their countenance changes and their speech changes (over-enunciating, speaking more loudly and slowly). This is very frustrating, because these well-meaning folks were actually easier to lip-read during the first part of the conversation, before they started changing the way they were talking. People don’t talk all LOUD and sloooow in real life. . . . I think this particular issue is partly why I wrote the book. I wanted to show people that you should speak to a deaf person as you would speak to anyone else, and then make adjustments if they are needed. If adjustments are not needed, don’t change a thing!

The scene when your friend Bonnie, who is so proud to show off her sign language to you (even though you chose not to use it), rings so true. As an adult, you’ve developed an appreciation for sign language. How long did it take you to get to that point?
I think I’ve always had an appreciation for it when it’s used between deaf people and between deaf people and their hearing family members and friends. I also have an appreciation of French when it’s used between French people. Do you see what I mean? Sign language is a language—and a very important and vital one, at that. It’s just one that I don’t really know, but people assume I know it. If your name is Pierre, do you also speak French? Hee hee. . . . But to answer your question, I think the act of writing the book meant that I was finally OK with everything to do with my deafness, the good and the bad. And I didn’t start writing the book until 2010 or so, when I was 40 years old! So yeah, it took a long time. Too long, perhaps.

How challenging was it to write about something so personal?
Parts of it were very challenging. The hardest chapter by far to write was the one about sign language. I wanted to make sure that I portrayed my attitude about sign language back then as bratty, because the last thing I want is for deaf kids and adults to read this chapter and think that I think sign language is awful or something. I wanted to be clear why I didn’t want to use it, and I also wanted to be clear that I was aware that I was probably missing out on something that could be really useful to me.

The other challenging part was writing about my friends, especially the ones who I had some trouble with. . . . I’ve been so long past any feelings of shame (even though I remember those feelings clearly); it was cathartic writing about them and removing them once and for all. But I do worry about what certain friends will think if they read about those old feelings of mine that concern them.

Why make yourself and all the other characters rabbits?
Rabbits have big ears and great hearing. Showing a rabbit whose ears do not work, in a crowd of rabbits whose ears do work, seemed like a great metaphor for someone who has lost her hearing. Also, as a kid I was so ashamed of the cords that went from my hearing aid up to my ears. When I look back at pictures of me wearing this hearing aid, however, it’s really not that dramatic looking at all. By drawing myself as a rabbit, however, I can have the cords go all the way up past my rabbit head into my rabbit ears. This dramatic representation of me and my hearing aid is more closely in tune with how it actually felt to wear a hearing aid when no one else in my class was wearing one. Plus, rabbits are bunnies, right? And bunnies are cute and fun to draw.

 

Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of El Deafo.

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