Sunday, June 15, 2008

Interview with author Elizabeth Boschini and illustrator Rachel Chaikof of Ellie’s Ears

Ellie’s Ears, released on May 1, is an informative picture book that shares the story of Ellie, a deaf girl with bilateral cochlear implants, in Mrs. Clark’s third grade class at Mulberry School. When new student Sam arrives, he has never met anyone with cochlear implants and proceeds to ask Ellie a series of questions.

Ellie is a spunky character who shares her “life” story as only a third-grader can. She describes her past about using hearing aids and her cochlear implant surgery, and talks about how her parents struggled to make the right choice for her.
The storyline was cute, witty, and not at all preachy. Sam asks the silliest questions. When asked if aliens visited the school and would Ellie be able to hear them, she brazenly responds, “I could hear them, but I don’t speak Alien”.
There are more serious aspects too. In a flashback scene, the Ear-Nose-and-Throat doctor explains to Ellie’s parents about the “many different ways they could help [Ellie] learn to communicate” and that the cochlear implant was just one of their possible choices. Readers will see that Ellie is a well-adjusted child but also how Ellie’s parents struggled to make the right decision for their daughter and how even after their choice, there was “hard work” involved with “special teachers”.
The illustrations really added to the story. The audiologist wore a ‘cochlear implant awareness’ t-shirt; after surgery, both Ellie and her stuffed animal had bandages; and, multicultural characters were added throughout the book. I particularly liked how Ellie had two pigtails but during the flashbacks to her “youth” she had only ponytail on top of her head. There are great pictorial representations so that young children can follow along; I can see how this book could be used for a whole family to understand the procedures for surgery.
I LOVED the ending with Ellie’s response to the overly inquisitive new boy but you’ll have to read the book to find out.
In the afterword, Elizabeth and Rachel include a letter to parents and teachers that reads that many children are “redefining what it means to be ‘deaf’ in the 21st century” and that this story is just one example.

Below, read my interview with author Elizabeth Boschini (pictured left), a student pursuing a degree in Speech-Language Pathology at Texas Christian University, and illustrator Rachel Chaikof (pictured right with some ice cream), a bilateral cochlear implant user and student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. *************************************************************
SPW: Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for main deaf character Ellie and her story?

EAB: “Ellie” is a combination of many different people. She is a little bit like I was in third grade – talkative, quirky, and outspoken. She is also much like many of the children with CIs I have known – confident, self-assured, and unashamed of her deafness and her cochlear implants as just another facet of the many things that make her a special and unique little girl. Ellie is not ashamed of her deafness. It is a part of her, but it doesn’t define her, and I think that’s a really admirable attitude.

RC: In addition to Elizabeth's response, some of the scenes in the story are based on my life as a cochlear implant user. For example, my parents first made their decision to get me a cochlear implant when they met a girl at the hearing and speech center who was deaf but was hearing with a cochlear implant. Thus, the scene where Ellie's parents meet Megan is based on that little segment of my life. Another example is the scene where Ellie cries when she hears for the first time with her cochlear implant. When I heard for the first time with my cochlear implant, I cried too.

SPW: What inspired you to write this book?

EAB: I was inspired to write this book because there is a real lack of children’s literature that addresses the realities for listening, speaking deaf children with CIs today. There are lots of great books for deaf children who sign and/or wear hearing aids, but much of the cochlear implant literature is from a very clinical point of view. Books about the cochlear implant surgery are great, and they’re a big help in the preparation process, but there’s just not a lot out there that deals with “life after activation.” Reading about “when I got my CI” is great – but where do you go from there?

More importantly, though, I wanted to write this book for the children I work with, so that they could have stories featuring characters “just like me!” Initially, I was just going to sketch up some stick-figure illustrations, print off the text on my computer, put it in a binder, bring it into the classroom, and leave it at that. Rachel added in her talents with the illustrations, and Ellie’s Ears as a real, live book was born! The fact that it’s become so much bigger than my initial expectations continues to amaze me! It’s exciting on a personal level, yes, but what’s even more rewarding is the fact that children with cochlear implants in the mainstream have something to add to their libraries that validates their experiences and helps to give them positive self-esteem.

RC: Since I was the illustrator, I'll talk about what inspired me to do the illustrations. Since I'm a cochlear implant user who was raised with hearing and spoken language as my means of communication, I always wanted children to have a character in a piece of literature to whom they can relate. Thus, when Elizabeth proposed the idea to me, I was VERY EXCITED and immediately said that I'd love to work on this project with her, as not only was it going to give me more opportunities to educate people about cochlear implants and give deaf children with cochlear implants a character who is "just-like- them,' but also, it was an opportunity to get a head start in an art career as a college student who attends an art school.

SPW: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from the book?

EAB: I hope that anyone who reads will be inspired to learn more about cochlear implants and listening and spoken language options for children with hearing loss. The face of deafness is changing, and the book shows what is possible for deaf children with appropriate early intervention services if their parents choose this path. I hope that it will give children with hearing loss a positive role model and a good example of how to explain their hearing loss to others in a way that focuses on their strengths and abilities, and reinforces the concept that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being deaf and/or wearing assistive listening devices.

RC: While this book is about giving deaf children with cochlear implants a character who is "just-like-them," it is also about educating various readers about cochlear implants. As a cochlear implant user, I am constantly explaining to people about cochlear implants because I've come across many people who have never met any cochlear implant users prior to meeting me. Once they notice the devices on my head, they question me about them. Their questioning never bothers me because they are curious, and they have the right to learn about cochlear implants. It was an opportunity for me to create awareness. Thus, I can relate to Ellie as she has to explain to the new student about cochlear implants. This book is one way of creating awareness of cochlear implants and educating readers about them since I feel that the general population knows less about cochlear implants than many other medical devices, such as prostheses for missing limbs.

SPW: Can you tell me about your future plans... possible sequels for Ellie's character?

EAB: Rachel and I definitely have more up our sleeves than just Ellie’s Ears! Because Ellie’s Ears is written more for a 1st-5th grade audience, our next project, called Happy Birthday to My Ears, will be written for children birth to five years old. It describes a little boy’s first year of hearing with his cochlear implants through rhyme. All of the different sounds associated with each holiday and season are discussed, and we’re even creating a very special “Happy Birthday to My Ears” song to celebrate “hearing birthdays”! It doesn’t end there. There are many more great things coming from EaR Books, so we’ll definitely stay in touch!

RC: Elizabeth and I have both discussed continuing this project, and so I do foresee that there will be many more books published in the future.

SPW: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your books for the first time?

EAB: Be proud of who you are and what you have accomplished! Share your talents with the world. Having a hearing loss is just one part of what makes you a unique and special person. There will always be people out there who say, “you can’t,” and it’s up to you to show them that YOU CAN!

RC: Some deaf children like my younger sister go through a stage in their lives of questioning themselves, asking why they are different from children who hear normally. Ellie is a girl who has lots of confidence in herself, so much confidence that she is not afraid to discuss her deafness with other people. Thus, I hope that young people see Ellie as their role model and learn that it's OK to be different from everyone else, and sharing their stories about being different is a positive experience as it helps spread awareness of what makes them different, such as wearing CIs or being deaf.

SPW: There are some individuals who are quite resistant to the use of cochlear implants for deaf children. Ellie's Ears presents cochlear implants as one of many "options" for deaf children. You've included information about the positive feedback that you've received about the book. Could you elaborate on that feedback and perhaps talk a bit about your target audience for the book?

EAB: While Rachel and I both espouse a listening and spoken language approach to deaf education, our intention for Ellie’s Ears was to create a book that celebrated the experiences and the everyday realities of deaf children who listen, speak, and live in the mainstream, not to promote any one particular “agenda”. We were, in effect, “preaching to the choir.” I’m not here to change anyone’s mind, I just want to provide positive information about what I see everyday in my work with deaf children whose parents have chosen for them to learn to listen and talk, many with the help of cochlear implants. Those children deserve a “voice” in d/Deaf literature, too, and I’m honored and humbled to be one of a growing group of authors who provide it.

Rachel and I decided from the beginning that we would not profit a single cent EaR Books, the company we formed. Instead, all profits from Ellie’s Ears and any subsequent productions will go to charitable organizations that benefit children with hearing loss. However, I have been repaid for my efforts many times over by the amazing support we have received from parents and professionals invested in the lives of children with cochlear implants. We have received emails from schools, public libraries, and individual families from over six foreign countries and all around the United States, expressing their gratitude for a book that finally puts into words what their children experience everyday. It has been priceless.

RC: In addition to Elizabeth's responses, I'd say this book is for all kinds of audiences. Besides giving deaf children who have cochlear implants a voice in a piece of literature, it is also to educate a wide range of audiences about cochlear implants since there are many people who are not aware of this technology. It is also to educate children who have no disabilities that children with disabilities are just simply people, and they are no different from any other children.

SPW: Anything you would like to add....

RC: I'd also like to mention my website, Cochlear Implant Online http:// an informative website on cochlear implants and Auditory-Verbal therapy. Elizabeth and I blog on a regular basis on this website to share my experiences as a cochlear implant user and Elizabeth's experiences as soon-to-be an AV therapist/oral school teacher. We also post the latest research, articles, and any other information that we can provide on cochlear implants and Auditory-Verbal. We'll also be posting news on EaR Books on this website.

SPW: Thanks ladies! Ellie's Ears is available for purchase at


Unknown said...

Why Ellie is in 3rd grade? At her age, she should be in 5th grade.

Anne Marie

Sharon Pajka,Ph.D. said...

Thanks Anne Marie. It is actually my mistake. Ellie is in 3rd grade and another character named Meg is 10-years-old. I will correct the information in the post. Sorry about that:)