How to Befriend a Butterfly 06/08/20
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Delivered in graphic-novel format, this memoir-style book is based on the childhood of US author/illustrator Cece Bell.
At the age of four, we see her being diagnosed as deaf, following a bout of meningitis. Cece starts school, bringing all sorts of new experiences. Along with the challenges facing any first-grader, such as negotiating the confusing rules of friendship, she is also the only deaf child in school and must learn to understand other people's reactions and attitudes.
Cece feels different. This is not helped by having to wear her Phonic Ear, an unwieldy 1970's hearing aid strapped to her chest and connected to her head by long chords. With time, however, she discovers that the dreaded device can be rather useful - even enabling her to hear what teachers are up to when they leave the classroom - a 'superpower' which gains the admiration of her peers. She also finally finds a true 'best friend' and by the end of the book Cece is successfully becoming the 'El Deafo' alter ego of her imagination, capable of taking on the world.
The illustrations are accessible, engaging and highly unusual, with Bell electing to depict the entire cast with rabbit ears. The semi-anthropomorphic approach is unexpected but effective, and, along with the comic strip format, serves to keep the reader's attention focused firmly on what Bell really wants to tell us.
Deafness represents a vast spectrum of experiences and (as Bell stresses in her author's note) her story can only represent one perspective. Yet many valuable messages are shared - the importance of being able to see people's mouths properly, the challenges of sleepovers (how do you gossip together after lights-out?) and how incredibly irritating it is when 'helpful' people insist on speaking artificially loudly and slowly.
This is a story told with great charm and plenty of humour, whilst also offering a fascinating insight into what it can be like to be severely or profoundly deaf.