The Story Behind El Deafo – A Virtual Exhibit of Cece Bell’s Newbery Award Winning Graphic Novel

El Deafo Cover Art Cece Bell

“OUR DIFFERENCES ARE OUR SUPERPOWERS.” — Cece Bell

The Salem Museum & Historical Society celebrated the arrival of Cece Bell‘s EL DEAFO, winner of the Newbery Honor Award, with an exhibit of artwork from the book. While the physical exhibit is no longer on display, the museum has made available this virtual exhibit.

You can also still pick up copies (sometimes signed ones!) of El Deafo at the museum shop. Call 540-389-6760 or contact info@salemmuseum.org to order yours.

Thanks to Cece Bell for letting the museum help launch El Deafo into the world and for her permission is posting panels from the original exhibit here.

(CAUTION: CONTAINS SPOILERS — but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?)

El Deafo! One Artist’s Story of Growing Up Deaf

 Alternative Covers for Cece Bell El Deafo

Who is Cece Bell El Deafo Exhibit

The reference to Brooks-Byrd would make sense to the museum’s local audience, but for the non-Salemites who might stumble on this post, Brooks-Byrd is a local pharmacy with an old fashioned lemon-lime- and-orangeade stand. It’s pictured in the upper right corner of the “A Page in the Making” image below. (Click to enlarge.)

Page in the Making Cece Bell El Deafo

While she was in the hospital with meningitis as a child, Cece drew many pictures of a smiling girl with a green face. Here are a few variations:

SCAN0532 SCAN0530 Childhood drawing by Cece Bell when in hospital

The last frame of the page below shows Bunny-Cece making a similar drawing:

01ORIGINSPanelsREVISED

Perhaps the most heart-breaking of El Deafo’s heart-breaking moments:

Perhaps the most heart-breaking of El Deafo's many heart-breaking moments.

Cece also shared with us some of the papers documenting her hearing loss, which she then used as a visual source for El Deafo.

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02PanelsRevisedJuly5

The Bell’s archives also included this note pointing out young Cece’s bad attitude toward speech therapy  — and her mother’s handwritten response.

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Cece signing books.

Cece signing books at the launch party.

Cece Bell El Deafo Launch Party

Friends and family of Cece swap stories.

Cece Bell El Deafo book launch party

Cece, showing her natural good humor as she chats with friends.

RealBunniesBells

RealBunniesMrsLufton

Mrs. Duffy today.

Mrs. Duffy today.

RealBunniesMrsGubala

RealBunniesSinklemann

A handful of the "real life" characters in El Deafo celebrated Cece's launch, including Mrs. E ichleman, who (with another teacher named Mrs. Sink) inspired one half of the Mrs. Sinkleman character.

A handful of the “real life” characters in El Deafo celebrated Cece’s launch, including Mrs. Eichleman, here on the left, who partially inspired the Mrs. Sinklemann character.

RealBunniesMikeMillerTAKE2

Mike Miller and his family today.

Mike Miller and his family today.

Susan Van Metre El Deafo Editor

As El Deafo’s editor, Susan Van Metre, writes, “[S]o much of what Cece experiences–a seemingly impossible crush, a bullying friend, a passion for TV, a deep-seated loathing of kickball–feels so familiar. Most familiar of all is her loneliness and longing for a true friend…”

 RealBunniesClaytors

RealBunniesMartha

MarthaToday

Martha today (on right), with her wax pal and founder of Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordan Low.

LittleHouseonPrairie

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The following is the Author’s Note that Cece included in El Deafo.

People can become deaf in many different ways. Some are born deaf, to either deaf or hearing parents. Some are exposed to one big loud noise, and they lose their hearing immediately. Some might be exposed to lots of noise over a long period of time, and they lose their hearing gradually. Some might get sick with some illness or another, and lose their hearing as a result of the disease.

Each deaf  person also has a different amount of deafness—how much he or she can hear without the assistance of a hearing aid or a cochlear implant. One can be mildly deaf, moderately deaf, severely deaf, or profoundly deaf.

But more important than how the hearing loss happened, or how much hearing loss a deaf person has, is what a deaf person might choose to do with his or her hearing loss. In other words, there are lots of different ways to be deaf. And there is no right or wrong way.

Some deaf people are members of what is known as the Deaf community, also known as Deaf culture. Members of the Deaf community view their deafness as a difference, but it’s a good difference, not a disability. Deafness is a condition that doesn’t need to be fixed. Those in the Deaf community might—or might not—use hearing aids and cochlear implants to amplify sounds and speech. Sign language is  the preferred means of communication in the Deaf community; Deaf people might—or might not—choose (or be able) to speak orally.

Other deaf people, however, do want to “fix” their hearing loss. They amplify their residual hearing with the help of hearing aids or cochlear implants. They may speak and read lips, and may or may not supplement their speech with sign language. They might think of their deafness as a difference, and they might, either secretly or openly, think of it as a disability, too.

And, I am sure, there are plenty of deaf people who would read the descriptions above and not  recognize themselves at all. I am an expert on no one’s deafness but my own.

I myself am “severely to profoundly” deaf, the result of a brief illness when I was four years old. While I’m fascinated by Deaf culture, I have not, as yet, pursued a direct role in it. Since I was able to hear and speak before I got sick, my parents were able to make decisions for me that kept me mostly in the hearing world. Their choices, and the choices that I made for myself later, helped me become pretty comfortable there. But I wasn’t always so comfortable.

El Deafo is based on my childhood (and on the secret nickname I really did give myself back then. It is in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience. It’s also important to note that while I was writing and drawing the book, I was more interested in capturing the specific feelings I had as a kid with hearing loss than in being 100 percent accurate with the details. Some of the characters in the book are exactly how I remember them; others are composites of more than one person. Some of the events in the book are in the right order; others got mixed up a bit. Some of the conversations are real; others, well, ain’t. But the way I felt as a kid—that feeling is all true. I was a deaf kid surrounded by kids who could hear. I felt different, and in my mind, being different was not a good thing. I secretly, and openly, believed that my deafness, in making me so different, was a disability. And I was ashamed.

As I grew up, however, I made some positive discoveries about deafness and about myself. I’m no longer ashamed of being deaf, nor do I think of myself as someone with a disability. I’ve even developed a real appreciation for sign language. To the kid me, being deaf was a defining characteristic, one I tried to hide. Now it defines a smaller part of me, and I don’t try to hide it—much. Today, I view my deafness as more of an occasional nuisance, and oddly enough, as a gift: I can turn off the sound of the world any time I want, and retreat into peaceful silence.

And being different? That turned out to be the best part of all. I found that with a little creativity, and a lot of dedication, any difference can be turned into something amazing. Our differences are our superpowers.

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