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Review: El Deafo (Cece Bell)

Next on the To Read list: El Deafo by Cece Bell (Amulet Books, 2014).

Despite it winning a Newbery Honor and an Eisner Award in 2015, I hadn’t heard of this book. I saw it in the Scholastic Book Club catalogue and decided to get it because it sounded interesting (and Scholastic do a good job of selling books through Book Club at a nice discount).

I was glad I did.

El Deafo is the semi-autobiographical story of Cece Bell who, at age four, contracts meningitis and loses most of her hearing. The story follows Cece through the next five years as she tries to learn to live in a world of hearing-abled people who don’t necessarily understand her disability, and how it affects her life and her relationships.

The impact of deafness on Cece’s relationships is a major theme throughout the story—particularly with regards to her friendships. Cece’s longing for true companions is highlighted by her extreme loneliness: in certain panels, she’s visually depicted within bubbles. Friendship, which is always a rich subject for middle grade fiction, takes on other interesting shades when the children who try to befriend Cece also find themselves contending with Cece’s deafness. There are those for whom it is an issue, there are those for whom it is not an issue, and there are those who try to over-compensate for it. Mix that with friends who are overbearing, bossy and boundary transgressors; friends who are well-meaning but irritating; and friends who are terrific but human and flawed, and you get a sense of the rocky landscape that Cece must traverse in order to connect with her peers. The fruit of these vignettes is a very helpful guide to what helps and what doesn’t when relating to others who are hearing impaired.

Certainly one of the things I loved about Cece was her resilience: early on with the help of her phonic ear, which she has to use for school, she reframes her deafness, imagining herself as a superhero with super hearing and calling herself “El Deafo”. Whole scenes play out in Cece’s imagination, where she pictures herself saying things and dealing with others in a way she doesn’t quite feel confident enough to do in real life. The climax of the story is a wonderful culmination of Cece’s growth to self-acceptance, as well as the acceptance of the kids around her, and I came away from the story wanting everyone in the world to read it.

Final thing: there were a number of things about the artwork of this graphic novel that I really loved. The characters are all depicted as rabbits, which is quite clever considering how rabbits are known for having big ears. (I also wondered if it was a nod to Art Spiegelman’s Maus.) I loved how the effects of Cece’s deafness was depicted in empty speech balloons, faint lettering, and text that looked like a foreign language until you did the hard work of trying sound out the words phonetically and guessed what the speaker was trying to say. I also loved the diagrams showing how certain words look the same in lip-reading. All of these things helped put the reader in Cece’s shoes and so that you really feel what it’s like to be her and live her experience. As Harvey Pekar once said, “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures”, and yet I never expected that a comic—which is, essentially, a silent medium—could do that in a story about deafness and hearing. 

Obviously I still have a lot to learn.

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Review: Allergic (Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter)

Next on the To Read list: Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix Scholastic, 2021).

Maggie is excited: she’s turning 10 and her parents have promised that she can get a puppy. With young twin brothers and a new baby on the way, Maggie often feels like she gets lost in the noise and tussle of family. She just wants something of her own: she loves animals and dreams of becoming a vet. But when she goes to choose her new pet, she discovers to her horror that she is allergic to animal hair—all animal hair. In addition, because the zoning has changed, she has to start going to a new school where she doesn’t know anyone.

The story of Maggie’s journey towards acceptance of her condition and connection with others is told with gentleness and humour. I really felt for Maggie and understood her sadness and disappointment. (We have something similar at our place, with children who really love cats, but are allergic to them. In fact, everyone in our family is allergic to cats …) I liked the way her first day at the new school is depicted and the circumstances that lead Maggie to becoming something of a social pariah. I also really really liked the unlikely friendships she forms—first with her new next-door neighbour and then later with a boy who has a different set of allergies to her. I kind of guessed the ending ahead of time, but still found it satisfying, and I appreciated how Megan Wagner Lloyd took care to tidy up a couple of the more minor plot threads.

Other things I loved about it: the diverse cast, Michelle Mee Nutter’s wonderful facial expressions, the muted warm colours, and the splash page in the pet store where you can see Maggie and her friend Claire moving around the aisles.

My only piece of criticism is one that I have a lot with middle grade graphic novels that are being released at the moment: I really really wish the lettering was better. Perhaps I have been brainwashed by Nate Piekos of Blambot, but the main issues I noticed were crossbar Is, text stacking in balloons that could have been more diamond-shaped, accidental tangents, and the occasional panel where I would read the balloons in the wrong order. They threw me right out of the story, but I do acknowledge that my brain has been trained to notice these things, so perhaps they wouldn’t annoy anyone else as much.

Overall, Allergic is a great addition to the middle grade comic canon. Give it to anyone who loves the works of Raina Telgemeier.

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Review: Seekers of the Aweto (Vol 1): The Hunt is On (Nie Jun)

I finally sat down to read Seekers of the Aweto Vol 1: The Hunt is On by Nie Jun (translated from the Chinese by Edward Gauvin). Xinyue, his brother Qiliu and their mother travel the land near the Silk Road, looking for aweto, a plant-like treasure that only sprouts from the top of majestic earth deities. (My father tells me that this is a real thing—not the earth deities, but the plankt: it’s called a fungus that grows out of a dead caterpillar called “cordyceps sinensis”, it grows in the Himayalas and it is highly sought after because of its medicinal properties.) The trio make a living from selling the aweto and are able to do what they do because of Xinyue’s drum, which commands the insects, and Qiliu’s flying prowess—along with his obsession with finding the celestial aweto, which is supposed to have the power to bestow eternal life.

The trio come across a village built around an earth deity and seek to rob them of their aweto, even though the inhabitants put up quite a fight. But in the tussle, Xinyue ends up becoming a carer for the deity’s little offspring, with warriors from the village in hot pursuit.

Nie Jun’s art is GORGEOUS (particularly the colours and his use of colour), the action scenes are dynamic and wonderful, and my goodness, will you just look at the crowd scenes! Volume 1 ends on quite a cliffhanger, and I’ve read that there are supposed to be four in total. With the first volume just released, however, I suspect it will be a while before we get the others!