Sidekick Wanted: A Review of ‘El Deafo’

“There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life, no matter what its location, age, gender, or disability.”—Sharron Angle

Suggested Grade Levels:

Interest Level: Grades 4-9

Grade Level Equivalent: 2.7

(As stated by Scholastic)

Review and Thoughts

El Deafo by Cece Bell is a cute novel written about the author’s own experience of dealing with becoming deaf at a young age.  This graphic novel chronicles her early life and explains how she became sick with meningitis as a child and lost her hearing.  Because the story takes place in the 1960s, some of the aids she receives are different than one might see today, but the situations with other people are all too familiar.  Friends, family, and teachers are unsure of how to treat Cece and she is unsure how to connect with them.

Cece learns how to adapt to her environment first through her family and later by trying to make friends.  She struggles with learning to read lips and then must wear a Phonic Ear to school.  The Phonic Ear is a double-edged sword because it helps her hear her teachers, but it is large and awkward and the other students think she is odd because of it.  Because her teachers would often forget to turn the Phonic Ear off, she would be able to hear them anywhere in the school, which makes her pretty popular with the other students by the end of the book.

The real story in the book is her focus on trying to find her one, true friend.  She has created her own persona as a superhero in the form of El Deafo and she longs for a sideckick.  After dealing with bossy, abusive, obnoxious, and unhelpful friends, she finally finds one with whom she can relate.  After a freak accident, she loses her friend for a while, and things become lonely once more for Cece.

The book wraps up well for her, she finds her place in her school and others finally begin to understand her disability.  She has a group of friends and she feels at peace.

The novel is an easy read for students, but delves deep into the issues that all young people have, with or without a disability.  All young people struggle to find a group of friends they can trust and with whom they can feel comfortable.  This is the part of the book that everyone can connect with.

In learning about Cece’s disability, we can also see how we should NOT treat people, how well-meaning people can still come across as hurtful, and demonstrates how uneducated many of us are when it comes to dealing with others who may have a disability.  The story allows us to see things from a different perspective.  Kids are challenged to question their actions towards others. As adults, we can also see how our good efforts can be frustrating for someone in her situation and sometimes even hurtful.

El Deafo is a Newberry Honor Book and I recommend it for junior high level kids to read.  I want to acknowledge that the reading level is not very high, so I’d make sure to delve deeper into the thematic parts of the book (ie. Friendship, overcoming disabilities) rather than focus on the literary aspect.  Also, because this is such a low reading level, I feel that a lot of younger students will be drawn to it, and there are a few issues I see with someone very young reading it (See below).

Possible Issues

(I tried to mention everything I thought might be an issue for very young readers.  This book has a wide age range for reading level, and a lot of maturing happens from grades 4-9.)

  • She mentions that she feels lonely and her older siblings are often doing “older kid things.” In one frame her sister is smoking and she tells CeCe she better not tell her mother.
  • Cece gets new neighbors and has a crush on one of the boys and daydreams about kissing him.
  • Cece goes to a slumber party and the girls talk about kissing.
  • Cece doesn’t see one of her friends for a while and when she does, her chest has obviously grown and Cece mentions it.
  • The teachers often forget to take off the microphone for Cece’s phonic ear. She can hear them talking about their frustrations with the students, smoking, and sometimes using the restroom.
  • She learns to use the phonic ear to listen out for the teacher when she leaves the room and the rest of the kids fool around and she warns them when the teacher is on her way.

Further Discussion

  • How can we be a good friend to other people?
  • Have we ever been treated like Cece was treated by Laura? How can we stand up for ourselves and tell someone we don’t like the way they are treating us?  Why is it important for us to be able to do this?
  • Is there something we struggle in our daily lives that we have a hard time expressing to others? (This doesn’t have to be a disability, it can be an everyday struggle.)

Catholic Resources

General Teaching Resources


    • Watch this El Deafo book trailer.