When she was four, she had Meningitis and it left her severely deaf. She spends kindergarten at a school for the deaf, learning to lip-read and adjust to her hearing aid, but then her family moves and she has to go to a regular school. She also gets a "Phonic Ear" a bulky, heavy hearing aid that connects to a microphone worn by the teacher. It's great that she can hear so clearly, but the Phonic Ear makes her feel self-conscious and isolated. She struggles with friendships, first with a girl who doesn't make a big deal out of her deafness, but is pushy and possessive, then with a girl who is fun to be with but makes a big deal out of her deafness. Finally, she discovers a younger girl in her neighborhood who is her perfect friend, but disaster strikes and their friendship is broken.
Throughout her trials and tribulations, she has her fantasies to sustain her, especially once she realizes she can hear her teacher anywhere in the school - even the bathroom! The story ends with her reconciling with her friend, possibly connecting with her crush, and becoming El Deafo, the superhero, not just to herself but to her widening circle of friends.
Bell's art has the strong lines and colorful palette that kids picking up this type of graphic novel look for, but she skilfully shows her isolation and confusion with the blank expressions on people's faces and the spurt of nonsense syllables filling the backgrounds as she tries to adjust to her different hearing aids.
A lot of people, librarians included, are comparing this to Raina Telgemeier and touting it as a read-alike. Telgemeier herself blurbed the book as well. I disagree with this for several reasons:
- El Deafo covers preschool through fifth grade - Smile goes from fifth grade to middle school
- Younger kids won't think anything of the choice to portray all the characters as rabbits, but the majority of older elementary and middle school readers won't pick up a book with anthropomorphic animals, because it looks "babyish"
- Telgemeier's art, like Bell's, is very clean-cut and easy to follow, lots of clear lines, expressive faces, etc. However, Bell's rabbit faces have much more limited expressiveness than human faces and she has a much more subdued palette, with lots of earth tones and lighter colors.
While I'm game to recommend anything that will get kids reading, and I'll certainly have a shot at suggesting this to younger fans of Telgemeier, they're apt to be disappointed. This is more likely to resonate with younger readers navigating elementary school, than those who are looking towards middle school.
Verdict: While I don't think this is a good fit for the way it's being publicized, I do think it's a really good portrayal not only of how one person dealt with being deaf but also with the everyday joys and despairs of elementary school. Recommend this to kids not quite ready to tackle Telgemeier or Myracle and to those who want stories about "real kids". If you can get them to look past the rabbits, they'll really enjoy it! Recommended.
ISBN: 9781419710209; Published 2014 by Amulet/Abrams; Purchased for the library