The American Library Association recently named the books that won its top 2015 awards, and for the first time, a graphic novel was among the honored Newbery books. It is “El Deafo,” Cece Bell’s autobiographical graphic novel about losing her hearing when she was young. Bell is a Virginia native who lives in Montgomery County, Va.

Here is a post about the book and why the award is significant, by Matthew Winner, who writes the Busy Librarian blog and who is host of “Let’s Get Busy,” a weekly kidlit podcast in which he interviews authors, illustrators, kidlit notables, and everyone in between. He is an elementary school librarian in Elkridge, Maryland, in the Howard County Public School system, and has served on numerous state and national book award committees. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewWinner

By Matthew C. Winner

History was made last week at the ALSC Youth Media Awards. ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, is responsible for selecting the recipients of the Newbery, Caldecott, and other distinguished book awards in what amounts to be the Academy Awards-equivalent for children’s publishing.

The Newbery committee chose Cece Bell’s “El Deafo,” a graphic novel memoir, as a Newbery Honor Book for its “outstanding contribution to children’s literature.” This marks the first time the committee has ever recognized a graphic novel for the award, a decision that will undoubtedly affect publishing for decades to come.

“El Deafo” is a graphic memoir for middle-grade readers wherein author Cece Bell recounts losing her hearing at age 4 as a result of contracting meningitis. The story follows Bell through the turmoils of well-intentioned friendships; the embarrassment and later unexpected advantages of wearing the bulky Phonic Ear assistive listening device; the invention of El Deafo, her alter-ego; and ultimately Cece’s emergence from preadolescence and the sixth grade.

Where “El Deafo” shines is through the graphic novel format’s ability to communicate the experience of being deaf in new and profound ways to the reader. Bell chose to depict all of the characters in her memoir as rabbits, drawing the reader’s attention immediately to the characters’ ears. As a result, we see Cece at every turn just as her classmates saw her, with visible hearing aids and connecting wires running under her clothes to the Phonic Ear.

In a traditional novel, this image could be lost over time in the text. But in a graphic novel, the reader sees him or herself as the characters and, in this way, experiences, in part, what the characters go through in the story.

Bell communicates her gradual loss of hearing by literally fading the dialogue text of subsequent characters lighter and lighter over a series of panels until finally the speech bubbles are completely empty. The effect is subtle and memorable and is something unlike anything done in publishing previously. Similarly, Bell later directs her readers to take notice of the way her ears interpreted speech, garbled and unintelligible. To do so, she recreates the phrases phonetically as she would have heard them. The experience of reading traditional text and then suddenly coming to a phrase like, “DOO YOO WAN SUMDING TO DRING?” is jarring, but it also causes the reader to stop and take notice of the text.

“El Deafo” is a book that commands the attention of the reader and challenges them to consider an experience unlike their own. But like other great works for children, it also provides the opportunity for readers to consider how they would act or react in a similar situation, helping to build empathy and understanding through the power of story.

Graphic novels have seen a huge spike in popularity among readers, and books such as Raina Telgemeier’s “Smile,” the “Babymouse” series by Jenny and Matthew Holm, Jeff Smith’s “Bone” comics, and the “Amulet” books by Kazu Kibuishi, have paved the way for an increase in the presence of graphic novels in the publishing community. Where graphic novels have struggled to find approval, however, is with the parents of these readers, many of whom associate comics with linear, predictable plots, fantastical storylines, and low literary merit.

Graphic novels are, of course, anything but.

The stories our kids are reading are rich in unfamiliar experiences, challenging situations, complex text, and gripping storylines. Reading a graphic novel requires readers to not only put themselves in the role of the character they’re reading, but also to simultaneously interpret text, illustrations, and unseen events that take place between panels. It’s a high form of multi-sensory storytelling, when done well, so much engages the reader that they return to the story over and over.

When a book is recognized by the Newbery committee, it translates to a couple major things.

  1. The book will stay in print forever. Book awards can keep books in print, and nothing keeps a book in print like winning a Newbery award.
  2. The book will reach a wider audience. Though the book being recognized by the award may have been a sleeper hit, books that receive the Newbery awards are widely read.
  3. The book will be read by adults. There’s something about slapping an award sticker on the cover of a book that causes adults to pay attention.

These truths make it all the more exciting for Bell’s “El Deafo” to be honored by the Newbery committee. In so many ways, this Newbery Honor further legitimizes graphic novels as an exceptional medium for storytelling for readers of all ages.

Raina Telgemeier, New York Times bestselling author of ‘Smile,” “Drama,” and “Sisters,” shared her thoughts with me on Cece’s win:  ” ‘El Deafo’ being honored by the Newbery committee means one thing: Lucky kids. The more readers who can learn and benefit and grow from Cece’s wonderful story, the better.”

“El Deafo” may be reaching greater audiences than Bell could have imagined, but in that way it’s also affecting readers with an experience so lasting that many will walk away changed.

The gate has been opened for graphic novels to make their impact on wider audiences and for graphic novelists to continue pushing the boundaries of storytelling through their balance of carefully intertwined words and illustrations. Says Telgemeier, “graphic novelists everywhere can rejoice in the newly mapped possibilities for our beloved medium!”

Here’s Bell talking about her book:

And here she is again, complete with transcript.