When Cece Bell was four years old, she contracted meningitis, and lost her hearing. El Deafo is the story of how she grew up with her deafness, the way it affected her education, family life and social relationships, and the way she found strength and power in the "specialness" of being deaf.
Bell's story is pitched at younger readers, but like all the best kids' literature, it was absolutely marvellous to read as an adult. The deceptive simplicity of her storytelling disguises a lot of nuance and moving (in both senses) parts in the tale.
Early on, Bell was educated in a school for deaf children, but following her family's move to a small town without such services, she was integrated into a general school, and was fitted with a special, enormous hearing aid that worked in tandem with a radio mic on a necklace that her teachers wore so that she could hear them.
In those days, the idea of wireless mics was still novel enough that Bell's teachers didn't think to switch off or remove the mic when they were out of the classroom, which meant that Bell could listen in on their bathroom trips, cigarette breaks, and frank conversations in the teacher's lounge. This "superpower" lead her to create an imaginary alter-ego called "El Deafo," a superhero with the power to know the otherwise unguessable inner lives of distant authority figures.
Bell goes through all the normal kinds of childhood drama, becoming friends with a domineering emotional bully at one point; inadvertently giving offense to another friend and scaring her off; getting a crush on a neighborhood boy, and so on. But because of Bell's hearing aid — her "wires" — these relationships all have another, complexifying dimension, and this gives the story an extremely satisfying sense of drama and freshness that helps it transcend the genre of childhood memoir.
Taken as a whole, El Deafo is a wonderful story about struggling with adversity without necessarily overcoming it — of the complicated, idiosyncratic process of making peace with who you are, triumphing at times and making peace with unchangeable reality at others. It's not quite like anything you're likely to read this year, and it's terrific.