Cece Bell’s 2014 Kids Graphic Memoir, El Deafo, was not only a Newbury Honor book but also a Kirkus Prize finalist, and it’s easy to see why. With beautiful, colorful illustrations and a keen sense of humor, the author tells how, after being hospitalized for meningitis at the age of 4, she lost most of her hearing, and how she coped with life’s challenges with deafness as an elementary schoolboy in 1970s Virginia. In an author’s note, she states that the memoir is slightly fictionalized, with some composite characters and some made-up conversations; however, the most notable distraction from reality is that everyone in it is depicted as an anthropomorphic cartoon bunny. A three-episode animated miniseries adaptation, Bell tells us, will premiere on Apple TV+ on January 7.
The memoirs and miniseries both aptly portray the young author’s serious hearing problems, though they do so in slightly different ways. In both, Bell tells how she used lip-reading and sometimes clunky hearing aids to hear the words of those around her, at home and school, and by actors on TV shows (who had no captions at the time). On the page, Bell experiences an overly silent and difficult-to-understand dialogue with faded letters and distorted text, as well as empty ballots when she couldn’t hear anything at all.
Sometimes Bell’s tone is enlightening, such as when she notes a significant drawback of lip-reading: “Many words sound the same and people’s lips look the same when they say them: mop, mob, mom, bop, bob, pop, or pom? Vase or face? Sherry, cherry or Jerry? Sue or zoo?” At another point, she adds a detailed, annotated diagram of her Phonic Ear hearing aid — a powerful device that allowed her to clearly hear her teacher’s words when wearing a special microphone, in fact, so good that the young girl could hear what her instructor was doing Outside of the class, including the use of the toilet. The amused youngster saw this ability as a kind of superpower, and in times of stress, she would imagine herself as a superhero named ‘El Deafo’.
The miniseries, which Bell co-wrote and executive produced, Harriet the spy‘s Will McRobb, attractively copies Bell’s idiosyncratic art style. However, it focuses less on the educational aspects of the book than on the portrayal of young Cece’s emotions. A poignant moment from the memoir, in which the author discusses attending a school for deaf children, shows the girl and her classmates in space, and it works especially well as a dreamy animation: “We were lost, drifting on our own planets. But at least we were in the same universe together.” The most notable difference from the miniseries, however, is how Cece’s hearing experience is conveyed—using audio that is tinny and often muffled, with words occasionally obscured by static microphones or overwhelmed by ambient noise. It’s a bold creative decision, but a very rewarding one, as it forces viewers who aren’t deaf to adapt to an entirely new way of hearing — just like the young author did.
The show gets good performances from its voice actors, including Lexi Finigan, who is also deaf, as young Cece, and cheerfulnessis Jane Lynch as Cece’s cheerful teacher. However, it has a few minor flaws. For example, the book contains references to TV shows such as: Star Trek† Little house on the Prairieand The Waltons, Tom and Jerry cartoons and even a Monty Python sketch, and their specificity makes Bell’s story even more recognizable. Unfortunately, none of this intellectual property appears on the show, likely due to expensive licensing issues. It’s especially shocking when the book’s multiple, clever references to Batman—a superhero who revered the young Bell—are replaced by the adventures of a rather cheap caped crusader named “Mightybolt.” The TV series also tends to lean excessively on Cece’s superhero fantasies, which work much better on the page; on screen, these sequences are visually interesting, but they tend to bring the story to a halt. However, these are minor comments for a show that captivatingly conveys the experiences of a young girl with such style and heart.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor†