Chapter 9 of El Deafo Almost Wasn’t—Here’s Why

Comments: 15



I’m very excited about the release of my graphic novel memoir, El Deafo. I’m also kind of nervous about it. I worry about what other deaf people will think of the book. Here’s one of the reasons why:

I lost my hearing to meningitis when I was four and a half years old. I was lucky to have a little bit of time as a hearing person to acquire some language, because as soon as I lost my hearing, communication with my family and friends became really, really tricky.

The summer after everything changed, my parents enrolled me in a kindergarten class for deaf kids, and that decision became the basis for how I dealt with—and still deal with—my deafness. In the class, we were taught how to lip-read. I describe this in the book. However, something that I don’t talk about directly is that our teacher did not teach us any sign language. At all. Zero. It was 1975, and whether it was the thinking of the time or the particular reasoning of that school system (or both), lip-reading was in, and sign language was out.

Page from EL DEAFO: The main character mishears a classmate telling her 'My grandma may die' as 'My grandma makes pie' and is mortally embarrassed.

But lip-reading is not always easy. Success in lip-reading depends on so many factors: who is talking, how familiar you are with the person talking, where the person is talking, how animated the person is while talking, the presence or absence of background noise and distractions and light, and on and on. Writing El Deafo made me realize that I wish I had learned sign language when I was in kindergarten, before I became so self-conscious about everything to do with my deafness. Perhaps learning both lip-reading and sign language would have helped me and my classmates communicate more comfortably than we could with lip-reading alone. But after kindergarten, I was good enough at lip-reading to go to school with hearing kids, and suddenly I was the only deaf kid in my class. No way was I going to do anything that made me different—it was bad enough that I looked different because of my enormous hearing aid. If I was using sign language, everyone would have stared at me even more, right? Oh, such faulty reasoning, especially since I was probably already getting stares. So I never learned how to sign, not even when my well-intentioned mother gave me an opportunity to do so. Over the years, I got better and better at lip-reading, and felt less and less inclined to learn to sign.

Page from EL DEAFO: A classmate is excited to find out the main character is deaf, and starts signing at her in exaggerated ways. The main character is annoyed and embarrassed.

The toughest chapter to write in El Deafo, by far, was the chapter in which I reject sign language. I initially hesitated to write it because I didn’t want to admit to the world, and in particular other deaf people, just how much I really and truly hated sign language when I was a kid. It is a terrible and unsettling thing to admit, but ultimately I decided to include my sign language story because I needed to be truthful to my unique experience of deafness. The book would not be complete without it.

Page from EL DEAFO: Everybody stares at the main character as her classmate continues to sign at her. She imagines turning into EL DEAFO and explaining that she doesn't understand signs, but has the superpower to read lips.

I sincerely hope that this chapter adequately explains the reasons for my mixed-up feelings about sign language, even if those reasons were irrational—and I also hope that I accurately portray just how bratty I was about it. It’s all true, including the last pages of the chapter, in which I witness two adults arguing in sign language. They weren’t interpreting a song in sign language like we sometimes did in music class (corny!), or following me around spelling my name with their hands the way some of my classmates did (annoying!). They were communicating. I was more than impressed, I was jealous. But not enough to actually do something about it. I was still too worried about being “different” from my hearing classmates.

Page from EL DEAFO: The main character is shown taking sign language classes, but is uncooperative and irritated.

The irony of all of this is that my absolute favorite people to talk to—because they are easy to understand—are the animated folks who make grand gestures when they speak, who “talk with their hands.” Isn’t talking with your hands what sign language really is, after all?

So, to all the deaf kids and the deaf adults who use sign language and who might read El Deafo: please know that I have nothing but respect and admiration for sign language and for those who use it. I sincerely hope that you will not be offended by the sign language chapter in the book. And I also hope that if we meet, you might teach me a bit.

Page from EL DEAFO: The main character's mother and others in the class try--unsuccessfully--to draw her into signing.

Thanks so much for sharing, Cece!

Amulet Books has generously donated an ARC of El Deafo be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

About Author

Cece Bell

Cece Bell lives in an old church with her husband, author Tom Angleberger, and she works in a new-ish barn (by herself). She has written and illustrated several books for children, including the Geisel Honor book Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover; some of her other works include Itty Bitty, Bee-Wigged, the Sock Monkey series, and the illustrations for Crankee Doodle (written by Tom). She still wears behind-the-ear hearing aids, and wishes that people in restaurant settings would come equipped with closed-captioning!



  1. Jacob Stratman on

    I look forward to reading this book. Ms. Bell should not apologize for her personal experiences. She does not represent an entire population. She simply must be true to her own story. That is all we readers should ask of a memoirist. Again, thank you for this post.

    • She is telling this story to a world of confused parents with deaf children who most of the time end up making the wrong choice of not signing with thier kids. Parents decide to waste thier children’s most crucial years of forming language on trying to “fix them”. The author was hearing for years and therefore she got time to hear english before becoming deaf. Children who are born deaf don’t get that and need to get language as soon as possible and sign language is often the best way and the most overlooked way of doing that. This author has a responsibility to not distort that truth. Deaf child suffer in large part due to the misconceptions of hearing parents.

  2. This is a book I think I’ll pick up on my own! It looks like a lot of fun, and I love the art.

  3. I remember when I was growing up and first learned about the idea of sign language I found it facinating. I ALWAYS loved talking, and as a kid I thought learning sign would be a cool way of communicating when I was not permitted to ramble on & chat with friends. I learned all the letters, but spelling out every word was tedious and I could express my thoughts quickly enough that way, so I wanted to learn words. When I looked into learning words, (long before YouTube videos) I found I was incapable of using the correct hands to express myself, because I was left-handed, and wanted to use my dominant hand for some of the movements. It didn’t work, so I eventually gave up. Several years later, after my kids were born, I found there were situations I wanted to yell my support/love for them but I didn’t want to embarrass them or myself. So, we have our own sign for 3 words- I LOVE YOU, which we have successfully used across the cafeteria, in the school halls & at church for many years. In the past few years, as my sister and I care for my dad, I’ve learned the challenges of reading lips from him. He doesn’t wear hearing aids, and must face the doctors and nurses to hear what they are saying. When the doctors breeze in and face us instead of him, or mumble, he misses their comments and we must relay to them to face him as they talk about things he needs to know.

    I hope to meet you someday, and chat about books and writing, and I’ll be sure to show you the Dudley sign language for love that my girls and I share. I look forward to reading your book and sharing it with my girls and their friends.

    • Lefthandedness doesn’t need to stop you from signing. Asymmetric signs and one-handed signs can be signed with either hand. It’s just important to be consistent.

  4. Tracy Ankney on

    I am a special education teacher with two hearing impaired students. I would love to read this book! I love teaching and reading! I love my job and my students! I would also love to share this book and beautiful story with my colleagues! Thank you!
    Tracy Ankney

  5. Shelley Smith on

    I have heard many wonderful things about this book through the Nerdy Book Club and can’t wait to have a copy to share with my students.

  6. Thank you for your honest story. I know there are students who will read and understand exactly how you felt.

  7. I have worn hearing-aids my entire life. My parents never taught me sign language because they didn’t want me to be treated any differently than my hearing twin sister, and I’ve always been uncomfortable whenever people try to start talking to me in sign language, when I just want to be like, no…. I… can hear when I have my hearing aids in, just… let me look at your mouth when you talk, that’s really mostly all I need from you. I bawled when I read this chapter because I have never, ever seen a deaf or hearing-impaired person or character express these feelings, and they are so in line with my own experiences. Thank you so much. Thank you for getting it.

  8. Pingback: El Deafo by Cece Bell | Bookabled