Reframing Disability through Graphic Novels for Girls

Alternative Bodies in Cece Bell’s El Deafo

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 Loyola University Maryland wmsmith@loyola.edu
  • 2 Loyola University Maryland jholc@loyola.edu

ABSTRACT

In this analysis of Cece Bell’s El Deafo, a graphic novel for children, we examine the tension between representations of able-bodiedness and disability in Bell’s narrative of a young girl negotiating family and friendships while experiencing hearing loss. Drawing on recent scholarship in disability studies and feminism, we demonstrate that ability is a characteristic that is not static; it circulates among a number of characters and bodies in the novel. Characters who match normatively abled bodies are at times unable to achieve their goals, while Cece, the protagonist, deploys a range of strategies to negotiate her social world, at times to great effect. El Deafo, in this way, neither idealizes disability nor represents it as something to be overcome. Instead, the novel opens up a space for alternative notions of embodiment.

Introduction

The status of graphic novels in school systems has changed dramatically in the last decade. While child readers have always turned to so-called comics for reading pleasure, school cultures and their gatekeepers in school libraries were slow to adopt the graphic novel genre launched by Art Speigelman’s Maus series in the 1980s. By 2000, however, the tide had turned. The popularity of graphic novels rose quickly, as evidenced by their increased library circulation (Moeller 2013; Gavigan 2014). The judges of the Newbery Award broke ground in 2015 by awarding one of its honors to El Deafo (2014), a graphic novel written and illustrated by Cece Bell. El Deafo stands out not only as a signal of the acceptance of the graphic novel format, but also as an expression of a new approach to the portrayal of disability in literature for young readers. Bell uses graphic novel techniques to create a representation of girlhood in which gender, disability, race, age, and class intersect in a richly detailed, realistic setting.

El Deafo is a memoir aimed at elementary school-aged readers depicting the social world of a young girl as she first becomes hearing-impaired at four years of age and then, as she grows older, moves on to school and a new neighborhood. The main character, also called Cece, is given a complex inner life through drawings and word balloons, which contain language that at times represents her thoughts (and thus function as a running narrative commenting on events) and, at other times, is diegetic. Central turning points in the narrative include Cece’s dealing with a bully, being forced by her mother to learn sign language, finding and then losing a close friend, and developing a romantic interest in a boy in her class.

El Deafo signals change in another significant way: the main character is hearing-impaired, but the novel does not center on her efforts to find acceptance as an impaired person. Instead, El Deafo offers a story that emphasizes Cece’s struggles in a social world that values full hearing to such an extent that it cannot address her as a full person. In other words, the novel stages the characters surrounding and interacting with Cece as impaired in their ability to respond to a deaf person. In an interview with The Guardian, Bell states that her motivation for writing was to help “hearing people … understand and communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people better” (2015: n.p.). By giving Cece a rich interior life—portrayed through graphic novel techniques—El Deafo normalizes her experiences and reactions, rendering the hearing characters as knowingly or unknowingly falling short in their attempts to make meaning.

At the same time, Bell visually presents Cece wearing, working with, losing, and regaining her hearing aid, an ostensibly mechanical instrument that eventually becomes organic to how Cece expresses herself and her desires. As Cece becomes self-conscious of herself as a social being and a young female, the hearing aid moves from obstacle to advantage. Her deafness is part of who she is as a girl and her hearing aid is part of her expressive embodiment. Cece is at times vulnerable because of her hearing loss, but only because of the mistakes and misinterpretations of others. She is more often in charge of a rich imagination, which Bell documents through text balloons and panels that accompany the main action, and the instigator of social interactions that sometimes give her what she wants, and at other times subvert her intentions. In this way, El Deafo brings new approaches in critical disability studies to literature for children, and contributes to the movement in girlhood studies towards identifying girls as sources of insight, voice, and power.

Since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1978 mandated inclusion, children’s literature authors have increased their inclusion of disabled characters and experiences, in parallel with other projects aimed at adding diversity to the curriculum. Disabled characters are acknowledged as disabled yet also as valuable members of the community, instead of just signifiers of otherness (Yenika-Agbaw 2011). This recognition approach is not without its critics, however. There is currently a growing body of scholarship on the issues at stake in representations of disability in children’s literature, some of which celebrates this approach, and some of which criticizes it (see, for example, Prater, Dyches, and Johnstun 2006; Walker et al. 2008; Hulen, Hoffbauer, and Prenn 1998). Thus, while the acknowledgment and exploration of the inner and outer lives of adults and children who live with disabilities have been welcome developments, they carry a risk of over-signifying the disability dimension of a person’s identity. Just as feminist theory has challenged the equivalence of girl with vulnerability, critical disability studies challenges the equivalence of disabled with vulnerability, illness, and difference.

In this article we use the socially grounded girlhood portrayed in Bell’s text to explore these issues and to identify patterns in the representation of what counts as ability in children’s literature in light of recent critiques in disability studies scholarship. We argue that graphic novels are well positioned to challenge traditional models of the representation of disability because of their unique blend of visual and textual techniques, as well as their reliance on abstraction (McCloud 1994). We argue that El Deafo, in particular, calls attention to two problems with dominant modes of representing impaired children: the reduction of the character to disability alone; and the normative validation of specific types of bodies presented as able-bodied. We find that Bell presents disability as being fluid and circulating rather than fixed to a body, questions the meaning and status of what is known as able-bodiedness, and creates an opening for what McRuer calls “alternative corporealities” (2006: 146). At the same time, El Deafo falls short in that it does not fully explore the racialized and classed implications of its female bodies. Cece’s taken-for-granted whiteness and middle-class milieu point to a need for further critical analysis of stories about girls and for girls.

Critical Disability Studies, Girlhood Studies, and Children’s Literature

As Carrie Rentschler and Claudia Mitchell note, simply being a girl is often read as disabling, or at least over-invested with the burdens of crisis and vulnerability (Rentschler and Mitchell 2014). The way girls are represented, disciplined, and pathologized positions girlhood as a container for the wider anxieties of specific cultures (for example, see Hladki 2105). Girls who experience a disability face a double bind: they are interpreted as weak because of their sex and because of their compromised ability. Deborah Stienstra notes how disability functions as a “trump card”—so determinative of identity that even gender becomes attenuated. In terms of representation, disabled girls risk “losing their girlness” (2015: 63).

Scholarship in disability studies has addressed the problems of representing ability in what might be called two waves of theorizing. Both begin with a critique of what Longmore called the “medical model … which defines ‘disability’ as physiological pathologies located within individuals” requiring medical treatment (2009: 143). The medical model assumed that disability was an illness that each individual experienced similarly, regardless of social and cultural context. Most disability scholars agree that the medical model reduced the person experiencing disability to little more than the supposed illness itself.

Longmore argues that disability activists successfully replaced the medical model with a cultural identity approach through public protest, lobbying, and media campaigns. These activists established disability as an identity that is potentially creative and that should be legally protected. Longmore writes, “For the vast majority of people with disabilities … discrimination is a bigger obstacle for them to ‘overcome’ than any disability” (2009: 144). Here, disability rights are a reaction to cultural norms that dehumanize bodies with any form of impairment.

The cultural identity approach comes with its own set of risks. The challenge is for disability to be recognized, but not over-recognized, such that a particular physical or intellectual quality comes to define the whole of a person (Garland-Thomson 1997). The problem of over-recognition is pervasive as communities and institutions struggle to be inclusive on the basis of disability. The intention to include disabled characters in literature for young readers often leads to stories in which an impaired individual overcomes his or her impairment to achieve a goal, or helps a community understand itself or become more tolerant. Media (now social media) stories of ill or disabled children exhibiting great strength or endurance are pervasive; they are defined first by their impairment, and then by their acts of transcending it. Tanya Titchkosky analyzes the overcoming narrative as a means by which society’s discomfort with disability is resolved. She writes that we “recognize disability through the unquestioned normative demand that it be overcome” (2007: 177).

An example of this overcoming gaze in children’s literature is found in Wonder by Raquel Palacio (2012). Palacio tells the story of August Pullman, a white boy whose face is distorted because of a genetic anomaly. In spite of numerous surgeries, Augie’s face is attention-grabbing, a disaster for a self-conscious pre-teen. As the book opens, Augie is about to start middle school. The book depicts him negotiating this complex setting, making friends, battling enemies, and finding his comfortable place in the world. While Wonder has received both popular and critical acclaim, the story reinforces dominant understandings of what most people might call normal physiology by having Augie struggle to overcome the deficit of his deformed face in public in order to teach his classmates how very normal he is. Wheeler notes in her analysis of Wonder that it is a relatively new phenomenon to have a child with a disability be the protagonist of a story. However, she also notes that the ending “skates way too close to a trope common in children’s literature, a trope [she calls] ‘the disabled child as educational toy’” (2013: 338).

If the first wave of disability studies moved us past the medical model, the second wave—what we call critical disability studies—moves past disabled bodies to question embodiment itself. This scholarship argues that disability is really about able-bodiedness. For Titchkosky, our overcoming gaze sees that a “good life is one that is able to overcome disability imagined as a non-social and lifeless obstacle” (2007: 184). She demonstrates how disability stories highlight the strength of the human spirit, individual achievement, and physical endurance in spite of obstacles; super-able-bodiedness becomes coded as the essence of being human. In this way, able-bodiedness is actually the subject of stories featuring impairment, so that normal bodies can remain the markers of human. Representations of disability “validate not difference but normality, the very illusion at the heart of the oppression of disabled people” (Darke 1998: 183).

Critical disability studies finds that able-bodiedness has not only become normative for humanness, but culturally compulsory, affecting everyone in society. In addition, able-bodiedness is obsessively celebrated yet simultaneously invisible. Robert McRuer, in his influential Crip Theory, finds that “[a]ble-bodiedness, even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a nonidentity, as the natural order of things” (2006: 1). This masquerade leads to a set of cultural practices in which we continue to deny that we will all become disabled at some point in our lives. We cannot speak to that reality since able-bodiedness, not disability, is the signifier of our humanity.

Thus, disability scholars and activists require us to notice forms of able-bodiedness as much as we recognize disability, and to treat impairment as fluid and circulating, taking different forms in different contexts. McRuer, in particular, promotes a framework that he labels “alternative corporealities” (2006: 146), in which normative able-bodiedness is challenged. Instead of treating deafness, for example, as a condition at one end of an ability spectrum, hearing impairment is part of an infinite range of qualities characterizing an infinite range of bodies. Children’s literature that captures some of this sense of corporeal variation is literature that critical disability studies finds most valuable in that, as Michael Bérubé puts it, its goal is to offer “a capacious and supple sense of what it is to be human” (2009: 213).

Alternative Corporealities in El Deafo

How can girls, with bodies that are abled, raced, and classed, both see and be seen fully in literature that is ostensibly for them? How can girls recognize and claim their experiences without their bodies being tracked on a spectrum of normativity? One response to these questions is offered in El Deafo. In its treatment of disability and its use of graphic novel techniques, this novel expands our notions of assertive girlhood to encompass deafness, opening up possibilities for different kinds of embodiment to be valued and treated as sites of productive agency. At the same time, however, El Deafo understates the racialized and classed dimension of Cece’s experience—issues that are central to the project of alternative corporealities in children’s literature.

Graphic novels present the action of the narrative through serial panels, each with a border that contains the meaning of the moment being portrayed within a specific space and time. The author conveys this meaning through the interaction of the written text, usually in word balloons and in the form of thoughts or conversations, and drawings, which themselves are composed with attention to meaning (see McCloud 1994). Additionally, the author can manipulate the frequency, size, and position of the panels to evoke emotion, mood, the pace of events, and how the viewer takes in the material.

Throughout El Deafo, Bell uses graphic novel techniques of abstracted illustration, variation in panel sequences and size, and the strategic insertion of text to carefully invite moments of recognition. For example, on an early page Bell presents a panel with a close-up of Cece’s hearing aid that fills the entire page (39). The single panel incites the reader to linger, and orders narrative time to stop. The rectangular box of the hearing aid, its straps and earpieces, are each labeled. Cece is wearing it. Her undershirt and underpants are part of the ensemble, also carefully labeled. Unclothed parts of her body—arms, legs, neck, and part of her face—are also shown in the panel. At this moment, the device becomes both part of Cece and also marked as not part of her. “The Phonic Ear is enormous! It is heavy!” (39). The hearing aid is simultaneously an external burden and a part of Cece’s body, in that she wears it and it mediates her social interactions. It is as intimate as her underwear, this panel suggests.

In El Deafo deafness and the hearing aid that extends from it are parts of Cece’s identity, but they quickly become subsumed by the universally disabling challenges of making friends in new settings. In fact, the reader is invited to view Cece’s problems as similar to those of any young girl in her social, cultural, and economic context. Cece’s quest is to figure out how to be herself, as a young child, in a world that values only full hearing; to her, this means that her quest is, initially, to find a friend. This task is far from simple for any girl; Bell uses it to depict the circulation of compromised and partial ability. Cece cannot hear, while others cannot connect.

Early in the book Bell introduces Laura, a loud, gregarious girl whose single positive characteristic as a friend is that she does not notice Cece’s hearing aid. With the exception of this welcome lack of over-recognition, Laura is not a supportive companion. Bell depicts her as constantly bossing Cece around. In one scene, Laura insists that Cece come to spend the night with her; Cece is reluctant to acquiesce because she is tired of being the focus of Laura’s domineering nature. She sits silently, quietly thinking, while Laura continues to harangue her.

This moment can be read as passivity, but Bell uses visuals to present Cece’s reflection as an act of assertion. She renders Cece’s interior life in full colors and vibrant lettering as Cece imagines a fantasy version of herself who is deaf but heroically assertive. This figure, “El Deafo,” appears complete with hearing aid, cords and a red cape telling Cece, “IT IS TIME TO PUSH BACK” (57). Following this frame is a full page of six panels, in which El Deafo, acting for Cece, ties up Laura, calling her “Super Bossypants” and attacking her with the “Hounds of Horror.” Cece slowly returns to reality as Laura’s talking continues uninterrupted, “I said, are you spending the night tonight or what?” Cece’s response, written in a lighter and smaller font is: “Oh yeah. Yeah, I guess so” (57–59).

In analyzing this powerful scene, we see that Bell keeps Cece true to her full identity as a hesitant, shy girl who is deaf, attempting to stay in a new friend’s good graces, but conflicted because she experiences her friend as an aggressor. Her fantasized double is larger than life, able to make herself heard easily, and she can access frightening allies (“Hounds of Horror”), all to manifest her desire to check and even dominate Laura. Yet El Deafo is also deaf. Her deafness is neither understated nor contingent on her superpowers; it is, of course, central to her name. Just like Cece, El Deafo carries her hearing aid clearly as a proud banner across her body.

Bell makes sure that readers see El Deafo as a fantasized superhero who is deaf by placing a drawing of her on the cover, the hearing aid cords winding up into the sky to spell the title. Does this mean that we may over-recognize Cece’s impairment? Interestingly, the illustration on the cover privileges El Deafo’s hearing aid and her red cape equally. Both seem to be part of her flight into the sky. As the cover and the title indicate, El Deafo is an important character in the book, but Bell never allows the superhero aspect of Cece’s character to take over and become all she is. The separation between the child Cece and the superhero Cece is clear in several ways, not least of which is the superhero name of El Deafo. In addition, El Deafo is able to do many things that Cece is not able to do. We see this first on the cover where El Deafo is blissfully flying above the world. But, flying is not El Deafo’s only superpower. She is also able to speak her mind, stand up for herself, and, as we will see later, mesmerize friends to get her own way.

Through the use of El Deafo to fight Cece’s battles, Bell avoids the striving story and presents Cece as one who struggles equally with her hearing loss and her everyday problems with friends, boys, and her mother. In one sequence, Cece is portrayed as deeply uncomfortable with the physical education (PE) class in her school. Cece is clearly not athletic, in a way that is unconnected to her disability. Mr. Potts, the PE teacher, has the common adult flaw of over-valuing athletic ability. “He really does treat us as if we are two separate teams: the athletic kids … and everyone else” (169). The drawing on this page shows two frames side by side. In one, an oversized Mr. Potts holds the athletic kids in the palm of his hand saying, “Y’all are awesome!” In the second frame, he steps on another group that includes Cece with his giant sneaker. In this situation, Cece is not part of the striving story as is Augie. She does not overcome her aversion to PE, but suffers through it. Even her alter ego, El Deafo, cannot help her to get out of this dreaded activity.

El Deafo’s narrative brings other characters into Cece’s world. After a few disastrous friendships, Cece, now a fourth grader, meets Martha. Cece thinks to herself, “She doesn’t shout at me, or move her mouth all funny, or try to sign at me. She’s not bossy, either!” (123). Cece believes that Martha does not know about her hearing aid because she wears a less obtrusive one at home. Although Martha is a year younger than Cece, she appears to be the perfect friend. However, when Cece’s eye is injured in a minor accident, Martha feels responsible, reacting with guilt and fear, refusing to interact or communicate with Cece. One reading of this incident is that the eye injury highlights Cece’s vulnerability, but the obstacle to connection lies in Martha’s reaction. While Cece is portrayed as needing to see a doctor and wearing a temporary eye patch, Bell makes clear that Cece suffers not from her injury, but from the loss of Martha’s friendship.

In spite of the benign nature of Cece’s injury, Martha is not able to maintain her friendship with Cece; Martha is dis-abled. In response, Cece once again transforms into El Deafo, (163–164), and flies through the air. Using the spell-binding charms of her own personality and her new glasses that transform into mesmerizing circling swirls, Cece, in this fantasized version of over-ability and healing, charms Martha into once again being her friend. Bell’s character invokes Gilbert and Gubar’s mythic woman dreaming of a future in which she—and those to whom she hopes to relate—could be “whole and energetic” (1984: 102).

This depiction of compromised ability also allows for a re-interpretation of the bully masquerading as a PE teacher. Is this adult socially disabled as well? Mr. Potts allows children to tease and embarrass those who are not physically adept in PE class. By presenting characters in realistic social settings with flaws/disabilities, Bell is able to show the reader that Cece is just another flawed/disabled member of the world. Her flaws may have a more readily available label, but they are certainly no more limiting than some of the other flaws portrayed.

Circulating Abilities and Female Desire

Cece’s hearing impairment is superseded, as the plot unfolds, by her disability of desire, as shown in her reaction to her crush on Mike, a neighbor. Bell visually depicts Cece’s flustered response to meeting him; not only is Cece unable to say her own name, but she blurts to her friend, “Uh…We gotta go! Come on, Martha!” (133). Instead of being her normal, outgoing self, Cece is reduced to spying on Mike and writing notes to herself about her feelings. Martha, the friend who is not smitten with the new boy, chats easily with Mike. He invites both girls to come into his yard and jump on a trampoline. On hearing this, Bell playfully draws Cece with heart shapes in her eyes, indicating a loss of power; she was silenced by her feelings for Mike and now she is also blinded. When El Deafo, her alter-ego, steps into the scenario, Cece regains her voice and her power and she lures Mike closer to her. In this short imaginary scene (138–140), Mike is the silent one, obedient and blinded by hearts; but of course, this is only Cece’s fantasy. In reality, Cece is pictured lying on the trampoline surrounded by hearts, blushing, and giggling.

Bell represents Mike as friendly to Cece, but oblivious to her romantic interest in him. Bell allows readers to see how Cece’s expressions of desire, embarrassment, frustration, and hopefulness turn her into someone with a normal disability, that is, someone who is not able to get what she wants. When the people around her overwhelm her, Cece transforms in her mind and visually on the page into El Deafo. El Deafo is able to change the behaviors of the people around her and allow Cece to hear and see, connect and love—to live out her full sense of what it means to be human.

Class, Race and Normativity in El Deafo

El Deafo is set in the home and in school, both traditional settings for children’s books, and places where young children are often portrayed as passively responding to the adults around them. As Carroll has noted, landscape within fiction, and children’s fiction in particular, is “a vital aspect of almost every text” (2011: 1). The graphic novel techniques, in particular, give text and context equal weight. The institutions of school, playground, family home, doctor’s office, and speech class are all spaces in which Cece is misinterpreted and not heard. Both the setting and the adult characters in El Deafo impose certain expectations upon Cece, with which she must grapple.

Bell presents these institutions as unremarkable. They are deployed as visual codes easily interpreted by any reader. Yet these are the spaces in American life in which class and race are played out most visibly. While a thorough-going analysis of class in children’s literature is outside the scope of this article, the landscape of the middle class is easily read into El Deafo. Early in the novel the family moves into “a big old house in a small town,” (35) to get away from the city, a text description accompanied by a drawing of a multi-story detached home with bay windows and a well-kept lawn. Her family is composed of a male and female parent, herself and two siblings, with no sign of extended family members. The interior home settings depict an autonomous mother moving about a spacious kitchen and organizing appointments for Cece; a father is present at doctor’s visits but otherwise is not shown at home. Cece’s family’s resources allow them to support her with medical visits, therapy, and extra activities, but both the author and Cece seem to take these as an accepted reality for anyone.

The position of Cece’s mother as the organizer of family and home life sets her up as the screen for Cece’s frustrations. In one incident her mother signs the two of them up for sign-language class. Cece does not want to learn sign language, but her protests are too weak to be heeded by her mother. Week after week, Cece feels humiliated by the other participants, none of whom are hearing-impaired. However, El Deafo resists, and, ultimately by summoning this aspect of her ego, Cece asserts her voice. Bell presents Cece as determined to not enjoy the class in a series of illustrations that depict her frowning, crossing her arms, and muttering “Argh!” supported by text indicating her inner thought, “How will I ever get out of this?” (111). El Deafo is not constrained by these conventions. While Cece is daydreaming before entering the class for the sixth week, El Deafo takes over and physically kicks her mother. Bell depicts Cece’s thought reaction, “Did I really do that?” (114). Reverting to her more deferential persona, Cece apologizes to her mother. But this active maneuver has achieved results: Cece gets her way and the mother allows them to leave the class. They never return.

El Deafo succeeds in confounding our standard responses to disability. It is less successful in challenging racially normative notions of the body. The skin tones in Cece’s world range from stark white to pink and orange, with the exception of a few panels that depict a large number of children. In El Deafo whiteness is the invisible norm. Bell seems aware of this when she devotes six consecutive panels to an adult African American female character who accompanies Cece on her first special education bus for kindergarten. Cece’s interior narration in the middle panel, after she says good-bye to her friend climbing onto a regular school bus, is, “I don’t know where Emma goes, but I take a terrifying bus ride holding the hand of a mysterious woman with a serious afro” (26). This line, the only one in the book referring to race or ethnicity, is complex. The character is indeed drawn with a perfectly coiffed afro hair style and with brown skin tones. She sits quietly next to Cece, then accompanies her to the school doors. Cece’s observation of the “serious afro” can be interpreted as part of Bell’s strategy to over-recognize difference as a way of making over-recognition itself visible. But this purpose is undermined by the ambiguity of purpose in the phrase, “terrifying bus ride holding the hand of a mysterious woman.” These frames could be interpreted to mean that Cece is frightened by the special bus taking her far from home with a person she has not met before. But the interpretation could also easily be that Cece finds racial difference new, mysterious, and terrifying. Of course, both could be true at the same time.

This interpretation is supported by another incident, also early in the novel, in which race seems to be being depicted. Cece is attending a new school; four panels of different sizes crowd a single page. Bell represents Cece in an overwhelming situation, sitting somewhat apart in a crowded schoolyard. These characters are tinted with a range of colors of skin and hair. The multiplicity of body type seems to signal energy, crowdedness, and confusion for Cece. She wonders, “Is everyone staring at my hearing aid,” while Bell shows no one playing with or paying attention to Cece at all (47).

It is difficult to find a graphic novel for children that presents complex intersections of race, class, gender, and ability, which is puzzling given the wide range of visual tools available to the author/artist. Smile by Raina Telgemeier (2010) and Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash (2015) are both memoirs told largely within the confines of a white middle-class world. Given the nature of a personal memoir told through the medium of a graphic novel, it continues to be the norm that white authors appear not to recognize the way whiteness manifests in their social lives.

Within this classed and racialized world, Bell draws her characters in a distinctive style. All characters have an identical, abstracted human body shape with rabbit ears and noses. Bell varies face, hair, and head shapes to distinguish the people in Cece’s environment from one another and to show distinct personas. Readers are immediately struck by the rabbit ears. In her 2015 interview with The Guardian Bell explained her approach.

I wanted to show what it felt like to be the only deaf kid in my elementary school. I needed a good visual metaphor, and rabbits, with their big ears and amazing hearing, were perfect for that. Essentially, I felt like the only rabbit whose big ears didn’t work—I had the ears for show, but little else. Also, drawing the cords of the hearing aid so that they went above my head into rabbit ears (as opposed to having them go into my actual ears) perfectly captures how conspicuous I felt as a kid (n.p.).

With these carefully crafted bodies, Bell intentionally develops a strategy of recognition that simultaneously highlights Cece’s hearing impairment and the over-ability of the culture surrounding her to hear.

Imagining Able-bodiedness

What does the central role of an imagined alter ego, El Deafo, mean for Cece’s agency as represented in this text? The appearance of El Deafo may seem at first to be an avoidant response to the constrictions of Cece’s world. However, feminist scholarship on children’s literature points to the imagination as a sign of agency and capacity rather than avoidance. For example, Paige Gray notes in her essay on Anne of Green Gables that Anne—and other female characters in children’s literature—use fantasy to achieve a “re-visioning” (2014: 169) of a flawed and disempowering reality. There is a rich literature on girlhood and fantasy in which girls’ imagined stories are vehicles for negotiating the difficulties of the real world. Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991), in which a girl flies over New York City in response to racism, is perhaps one of the most powerful.

The presence of El Deafo in Cece’s life allows her to act to change the conditions presented to her. In one of the final scenes in the book, Cece once again has an opportunity to interact with her crush, Mike. In school Cece and Mike have been selected to be on stage while the rest of the class sings for the class end-of-year program (198–201). At this point in the narrative Cece uses a “phonic ear,” which delivers her teacher’s voice to her at an increased volume. While waiting for their act to begin, Cece hears their teacher, through her phonic ear, using the toilet. Mrs. Sinklemann had forgotten to turn off her microphone when she left the classroom. Cece giggles uncontrollably. She knows that Mike will also be amused to know that she can hear the teacher in this private moment. Cece thinks to herself, “Should I tell him? I’ve never talked to anyone about this stuff. And I can’t even begin to talk to him. I wish I really did have superpowers! Then it would all be so easy!” (199, boldface in original). El Deafo steps into the frame: “You don’t need superpowers to speak!” (200). In this instance, Cece uses her imagination to give herself agency. She tells Mike what she has heard and they not only enjoy a laugh together, but Mike invites Cece to come to his house after school. The final panel shows El Deafo above Cece’s left shoulder, hands on hips, proclaiming, “This just gets better and better!” (202).

Conclusion

Through El Deafo, Bell depicts the intersection of girlhood and disability to give us a new lens through which disability can be viewed in children’s literature. Drawing on scholarship in critical disabilities studies, girlhood studies, and children’s literature, we have shown the strengths of this graphic novel, particularly its ability to question normative able-bodiedness.

By consciously recognizing alternative corporealities, Bell’s playful story promises to generate more openings for all bodies. As Tobin Siebers puts it, “[D]isability enlarges our vision of human variation and difference” (2010: 3). Educators and activists could easily draw on El Deafo to introduce children to characters with a range of abilities and alternative corporealities, without reinforcing over-recognition of what has so readily come to be called disability.

El Deafo would have been stronger had it foregrounded the intersectionality of ability and gender with race and class. Since the advent of inclusive education, more authors have responded to the need for the presence of child characters with alternative abilities in children’s literature, resulting in books that address the issues of disability in a more thoughtful and connected manner. Authors may choose to depict worlds that mirror those in which they were raised. However, graphic novelists writing for children could easily use visual representations to pictorially show a world populated by children outside of the white, middle-class milieu.

We must conclude with a comment on the strengths of this novel, recognizing how El Deafo portrays Cece’s reflective life through a running narrative of words and images. Readers first encounter characters as hearers, with amazing ears, as Cece first encounters them. Bell places the over-recognition experience of those who are impaired front and center. But she also over-recognizes the flaws of those who hear; she renders invisible able-bodiedness visible. We cannot avoid Cece’s deafness since the hearing aid cords, and, later, the phonic ear, are a constant visual presence (as well as crucial to later plot development). In this way Bell does not allow readers to forget that Cece is hearing-impaired, nor does she allow us to forget our impulses to make that impairment go away.

References

  • Bell, Cece. 2014. El Deafo. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

  • Bell, Cece. 2015. Cece Bell: I Wanted to Show What it Felt Like to Be the Only Deaf Kid at My School. The Guardian, 27 April http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/apr/27/cece-bell-el-deafo-newbery-medal-deafness-childrens-books (accessed 30 November 2015).

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  • Bérubé, Michael. 2009. “Citizenship and Disability.” Pp. 205213 in Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate, ed. Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum and S. Kay Toombs. New York: Prometheus Books.

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  • Carroll, Jane Suzanne. 2012. Landscape in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge.

  • Darke, Paul. 1998. “Understanding Cinematic Representations of Disability.” Pp. 181197 in The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Tom Shakespeare. London: Cassell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gavigan, Karen, W. 2014. “Shedding New Light on Graphic Novel Collections: A Circulation and Collection Analysis Study in Six Middle School Libraries.” School Libraries Worldwide 20, no. 1: 97115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. 1984. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (2nd ed.). New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gray, Paige. 2014. “‘Bloom in the Moonshine’: Imagination as Liberation in Anne of Green Gables.” Children’s Literature 42: 169196.

  • Hladki, Janice. 2015. “Disability and Girlhood: The Anomalous Embodiment of the Chubby Girl in Critical Art Practice.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 9, no. 3: 313329.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hulen, Linda, Diane Hoffbauer, and Maureen Prenn. 1998. “Children’s Literature Dealing with Disabilities: A Bibliography for the Inclusive Classroom.” Journal of Children’s Literature 24, no. 1: 6777.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Longmore, Paul K. 2009. “The Second Phase: From Disability Rights to Disability Culture.” Pp. 141150, in Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate, ed. Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum and S. Kay Toombs. New York: Prometheus Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.

  • Moeller, Robin A. 2013. “Convincing the Naysayers: Why Graphic Novels Deserve a Place in the School Library.” Knowledge Quest 41, no. 3, 1217.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Palacio, Raquel J. 2012. Wonder. New York: Knopf.

  • Prater, Mary Anne, Tina Taylor Dyches, and Marissa Johnstun. 2006. “Teaching Students About Learning Disabilities Through Children’s Literature.” Intervention in School and Clinic 42, no.1: 1424. doi: 10.1177/10534512060420010301

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rentschler, Carrie A., and Claudia Mitchell. 2014. “The Re-Description of Girls in Crisis.” Girlhood Studies 7, no.1: 27.

  • Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers.

  • Siebers, Tobin. 2010. Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

  • Stienstra, Deborah. 2015. “Trumping All? Disability and Girlhood Studies.” Girlhood Studies 8, no. 2: 5470.

  • Spiegelman, A. 1991. Maus. New York: Pantheon Books.

  • Telgemeier, Raina. 2010. Smile. New York: GRAPHIX.

  • Thrash, Maggie. 2015. Honor Girl. New York: Candlewick.

  • Titchkosky, Tanya. 2007. Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Texture Life of Embodiment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Walker, Valerie Struthers, Tara Mileski, Dana Greaves, and Lisa Patterson. 2008. “Questioning Representations of Disability in Adolescent Literature: Reader Response Meets Disability Studies.” Disability Studies Quarterly 28, no. 4 http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/140/140 (accessed 7 August 2015).

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wheeler, Elizabeth A. 2013. “No Monsters in This Fairy Tale: Wonder and the New Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 38, no. 3: 335350. doi: 10.1353/chq.2013.0044

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yenika-Agbaw, Vivian. 2011. “Reading Disability in Children’s Literature: Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 1: 91108. doi: 10.3828/jlcds.2011.6

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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Contributor Notes

Wendy Smith-D’Arezzo is a Professor in Literacy in the Teacher Education Department at Loyola University Maryland. She studies children’s literature texts that contain representations of children who are marginalized by society such as children with disabilities, children who have been abused, and children from minority cultures. She teaches courses in children’s literature and literacy methods.

Janine Holc is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. She has published articles on the politics of gender and representation in Eastern Europe. She is currently working on memory politics, representation, and the Holocaust. She teaches courses on international relations, non-Western approaches to global issues, and global migration.

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Bell, Cece. 2014. El Deafo. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

  • Bell, Cece. 2015. Cece Bell: I Wanted to Show What it Felt Like to Be the Only Deaf Kid at My School. The Guardian, 27 April http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/apr/27/cece-bell-el-deafo-newbery-medal-deafness-childrens-books (accessed 30 November 2015).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bérubé, Michael. 2009. “Citizenship and Disability.” Pp. 205213 in Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate, ed. Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum and S. Kay Toombs. New York: Prometheus Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carroll, Jane Suzanne. 2012. Landscape in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge.

  • Darke, Paul. 1998. “Understanding Cinematic Representations of Disability.” Pp. 181197 in The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Tom Shakespeare. London: Cassell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gavigan, Karen, W. 2014. “Shedding New Light on Graphic Novel Collections: A Circulation and Collection Analysis Study in Six Middle School Libraries.” School Libraries Worldwide 20, no. 1: 97115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. 1984. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (2nd ed.). New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gray, Paige. 2014. “‘Bloom in the Moonshine’: Imagination as Liberation in Anne of Green Gables.” Children’s Literature 42: 169196.

  • Hladki, Janice. 2015. “Disability and Girlhood: The Anomalous Embodiment of the Chubby Girl in Critical Art Practice.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 9, no. 3: 313329.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hulen, Linda, Diane Hoffbauer, and Maureen Prenn. 1998. “Children’s Literature Dealing with Disabilities: A Bibliography for the Inclusive Classroom.” Journal of Children’s Literature 24, no. 1: 6777.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Longmore, Paul K. 2009. “The Second Phase: From Disability Rights to Disability Culture.” Pp. 141150, in Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate, ed. Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum and S. Kay Toombs. New York: Prometheus Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.

  • Moeller, Robin A. 2013. “Convincing the Naysayers: Why Graphic Novels Deserve a Place in the School Library.” Knowledge Quest 41, no. 3, 1217.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Palacio, Raquel J. 2012. Wonder. New York: Knopf.

  • Prater, Mary Anne, Tina Taylor Dyches, and Marissa Johnstun. 2006. “Teaching Students About Learning Disabilities Through Children’s Literature.” Intervention in School and Clinic 42, no.1: 1424. doi: 10.1177/10534512060420010301

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rentschler, Carrie A., and Claudia Mitchell. 2014. “The Re-Description of Girls in Crisis.” Girlhood Studies 7, no.1: 27.

  • Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers.

  • Siebers, Tobin. 2010. Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

  • Stienstra, Deborah. 2015. “Trumping All? Disability and Girlhood Studies.” Girlhood Studies 8, no. 2: 5470.

  • Spiegelman, A. 1991. Maus. New York: Pantheon Books.

  • Telgemeier, Raina. 2010. Smile. New York: GRAPHIX.

  • Thrash, Maggie. 2015. Honor Girl. New York: Candlewick.

  • Titchkosky, Tanya. 2007. Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Texture Life of Embodiment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Walker, Valerie Struthers, Tara Mileski, Dana Greaves, and Lisa Patterson. 2008. “Questioning Representations of Disability in Adolescent Literature: Reader Response Meets Disability Studies.” Disability Studies Quarterly 28, no. 4 http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/140/140 (accessed 7 August 2015).

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wheeler, Elizabeth A. 2013. “No Monsters in This Fairy Tale: Wonder and the New Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 38, no. 3: 335350. doi: 10.1353/chq.2013.0044

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yenika-Agbaw, Vivian. 2011. “Reading Disability in Children’s Literature: Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 1: 91108. doi: 10.3828/jlcds.2011.6

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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