60 pages 2 hours read

Cece Bell

El Deafo

Fiction | Graphic Novel/Book | Middle Grade | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


El Deafo is a 2014 semi-autobiographical, graphic novel by American author and illustrator Cece Bell. Bell, who was born deaf, recounts her childhood in the format of a guide starring an anthropomorphic rabbit, “Cece.” The book endeavors to undermine negative representations of deafness by representing Cece’s difference as valid, even empowering, with the assistance of modern technology. Throughout the book, Cece occasionally assumes a superhero persona, “El Deafo.” El Deafo challenges common misconceptions about disabilities, showing that they are not measurements of character; nor are they necessarily debilitating, or inherited at birth. The book won a 2015 Newbery Honor and a 2015 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids (8-12).

Plot Summary

The novel begins when Cece is four years old. Born hearing-abled, she lives a rather ordinary and happy life in a quiet neighborhood with her parents. She spends her time riding her bike with her dad and playing with her best friend, Emma, and older siblings, Ashley and Sarah.

One day, Cece falls very ill, requiring hospitalization. Her doctors diagnose her with meningitis, an inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain. Though she recovers from the illness, which is often fatal, she permanently loses her hearing. The doctors give her a device that can restore her ability to hear. Cece hates the device at first: It is large, odd-looking, and makes her stand out at school. She feels especially different when she is removed from the “normal” classes at school and put in a class for people with hearing issues.

After kindergarten is over, Cece’s family moves to Roanoke, Virginia. Cece hopes to use the opportunity to start over and fit in. Though her new classmates and neighborhood residents are mostly nice, she finds it difficult to connect. The first girl she tries to befriend, Laura, turns out to be possessive of Cece. The second, Ginny, seemingly can’t see past Cece’s deafness and constantly points it out. At school, Cece adopts a new device called the Phonic Ear. The Phonic Ear is even more physically prominent than her hearing aid. This time, Cece makes the most of her situation, creating a superhero persona, “El Deafo,” who has extraordinary hearing abilities. El Deafo helps Cece feel better about being deaf: Cece imagines scenarios in which the superhero intervenes in uncomfortable conversations, knocking some sense into ignorant people like Laura. El Deafo’s heroism is bittersweet because Cece yearns to have her courage in real life.

Cece makes a new friend, Martha, who sees beyond Cece’s hearing loss. They have sleepovers together and play around the neighborhood, sneaking onto the trampoline of Cece’s crush, Mike. One day during a game of tag, Cece runs into a tree branch, scratching her eye. Martha blames herself for not preventing the accident, becoming guilty and avoidant. Cece assures her that the injury was not related to Martha at all.

Cece also musters the courage to talk to Mike. She shows off the abilities of her Phonic Ear, which allows her to hear the smallest of noises, including distant conversations. Mike thinks of an experiment to test the range of the Phonic Ear, and it piques the interest of the children in their neighborhood. The children begin to see Cece’s device as an amazing piece of technology rather than an essential part of her. Cece revises the fictional universe of El Deafo to include the superhero’s best friend, Martha.

As Cece’s mood improves, she comes to realize that she is even more than El Deafo, because she is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. El Deafo shows that disabilities can be just as valuable as superpowers if one makes the most of them.