Interview: Cece Bell, Author Of 'El Deafo' Navigating elementary school is already hard enough — try adding in a bulky metal hearing aid. Cece Bell's new young adult graphic memoir captures the experience in a poignant and humorous way.

'El Deafo': How A Girl Turned Her Disability Into A Superpower

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

For these last few weekends of the year, we're featuring interviews with authors whose books we missed - great books that didn't get much attention when they came out earlier this year. And right now, one of my absolute favorites - a mix of memoir, graphic novel and children's book called "El Deafo." It's writer and artist Cece Bell's own story of growing up hearing impaired.

As you can tell from the title, it's unsentimental and very funny. The people are drawn as rabbits, and it manages to be both cute and edgy at the same time. So how does the mild-mannered little girl Cece transform into the superhero El Deafo? It all has to do with something called the Phonic Ear.

CECE BELL: The Phonic Ear was a big bulky hearing aid. I wore it strapped onto my chest, and I had cords with earpieces that went up to my ears. This hearing aid worked with a teacher's microphone, and basically the microphone amplified my teacher's voice and made it really clear, really loud, just for me.

And soon after I got outfitted with it, I discovered that not only was I hearing her wherever she was in the classroom, but I could hear her wherever she was in the entire school building. So I had a lot of power, and it was awesome.

RATH: And that's what in the book leads to the birth of El Deafo, because Cece comes to see her deafness not as a disability.

BELL: Right, exactly. At home, it was more of a disability. And in my mind it was, because I felt very embarrassed and self-conscious to be wearing all this equipment and to be different from everybody.

But because the Phonic Ear kind of gave me these superpowers. Just like Bruce Wayne has to wear all that technology on his belt and turns into Batman, I had this awesome piece of technology on my chest that turned me in to El Deafo, this great superhero.

RATH: You use the medium really marvelously to be able to convey to people - hearing people - what the experience is like. Like how it's difficult to read lips and words get distorted.

BELL: Right, right. This is the perfect medium for that because of the speech balloon. For example, if as a lip-reader, if I'm wearing my hearing aids and I'm looking right at you speaking, I understand every word you say, because I've got some sound coming in and the visual clues from your lips. So in a graphic novel, that speech balloon would be understandable to everybody, what you were saying in that balloon.

But if I maybe had my hearing aids out and wasn't looking at you, your speech balloon would be empty, because I wouldn't know what you were saying, and I wouldn't hear what you were saying. And then, if I had my hearing aids in, and I'm not looking at you, I can hear your voice because of my hearing aids, but it's all garbled. And so the speech in the speech balloon would be garbled.

So it's just the perfect visual way to show all the ways a hard-of-hearing or a deaf person might or might not be hearing.

RATH: When you see a character speaking, an expression on their face and that blank speech bubble...

BELL: Right.

RATH: ...It really hits you in the gut.

BELL: Yeah, yeah. And it's a much better than if I were to write that longhand, you know, well, then someone said something, I think, and da da da da dada (ph). You know, it would just take forever - where you instantly know as soon as you see the empty speech bubble that I'm not hearing.

RATH: Although, it probably should be obvious to people listening that you read lips very well. We just make sure that my microphone here is not in your line of sight.

BELL: Right, right. You have a good voice, too. And that helps.

RATH: Thank you.

BELL: (Laughter) No mustaches or beards (laughter).

RATH: I want to make sure that we mentioned, though, that the book is not all focused in deaf issues. Like anybody who's ever been a kid, a little girl...

BELL: Right.

RATH: ...There's stuff that's relatable and hilarious.

BELL: Oh, good. Well, thank you, thank you. I definitely - I'm not a maudlin person. And one of my least favorite things are the movies that have some disabled person. And the violins come out, and it's all weepy and wah-ah-ah (ph), you know, boohoo (ph). That's not me. That's probably not most people with a disability.

And there's a lot of funny things that happen with equipment, with misunderstanding people. There's so much humor in it. And I wanted people to come away and think, well, it's not all bad, you know?

RATH: I wanted to ask you, though - you've written other beautiful picture books and children's books before. Why didn't you turn to your own story earlier. What made you think of it now?

BELL: I don't think I was ready. Even though in the book it seems like at the end of the book that I'm totally cool with it - with having trouble hearing, it took me much, much longer in my life to get to that point. And actually writing this book and getting it out there and just going ahead and saying hey, world, I can't hear very well, it was a big experience for me. And I just wasn't ready. I just wasn't quite ready to tell the world that I'm deaf.

But suddenly I was ready so then I did it. And I'm kind of glad I waited, because I got a lot more experience as a storyteller with these other books, and I think that made me better ready to do it now.

RATH: Cece Bell's marvelous new book is called "El Deafo." Cece, really enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you.

BELL: Thank you for having me. It's been fun.

RATH: "El Deafo" is one of the 250 or so books featured on NPR's Book Concierge, our guide to 2014's best reads. You can find out more of the books we loved this year at NPR.org/bestbooks.

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