Wednesday, September 24, 2014

'El Deafo' by Cece Bell-- Review written for the Washington Post Washington Post
Review: ‘El Deafo’ by Cece Bell

(click above to be taken to the Washington Post homepage to read my review)

Children's author and illustrator's new book El Deafo is a memoir that covers some pretty serious issues that can be found in other autobiographies written by deaf and hard of hearing authors. If you're not familiar with graphic novels, don't let the layout and pictures mislead you; they can contain some heavy content. As always, I recommend that you screen the book before recommending it to a young person.

For more information about the author, visit her blog.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Interview with Strong Deaf author Lynn E. McElfresh

To me this feels like a long-awaited interview and I’m so excited to have had the opportunity to share in the journey of this book.

Oftentimes, deaf characters hold only minor roles and readers do not experience the story from a deaf person’s perspective. This is not the case for Lynn E. McElfresh’s new novel, STRONG DEAF, which although tackles some of the difficulties between hearing and deaf individuals, is ultimately about two sisters, Jade and Marla, who struggle to find a place in each other’s lives. McElfresh, author of Can You Feel the Thunder? (1999), narrates the story from two points of view, Marla, the deaf older sister whom McElfresh may have modeled after her own deaf sister, and Jade, the hearing younger sister who sometimes resents feeling different than the rest of her Deaf family. Readers are invited along the sisters’ journey of family gatherings, school events, and moments of bonding that demonstrate how two girls can happily live under one roof. I look forward to recommending this to young people and the young at heart. 

The picture below is the one the author hoped would be used for her book jacket. She loves the picture and so do I! She writes, “I thought kids would like it. I wanted to say in my book jacket bio that signing is very helpful when snorkeling or scuba diving.” 

*********Read my interview below with author Lynn E. McElfresh*********

SP: What influenced your decision to include Deaf Characters who uses sign language in your book?
LM: The Golden Rule of writing is to write about what you know.
I grew up with a deaf sister and had lots of experiences with deaf people while I was growing up.  When I mention I have a deaf sister, people are always interested and have lots of questions. The original draft of the book was called Not Deaf, Not Heard. It was to be strictly from the point of view of a hearing girl growing up in an all-deaf family. The main crux of the story was to be that Jade (the lone hearing person in her family) would find and be re-united with her hearing grandmother, who she always assumed was dead.

My publisher thought this plot line was too far-fetched. I shared that I had considered writing the story as a braided narrative and he encourage me to rewrite the story from the first person point of view of both the hearing sister and the deaf sister.

I was very nervous about writing in the first person from a deaf person’s point of view. I’m very aware that being around deaf people is not the same as being deaf. I am not deaf. I am not part of the deaf community or deaf culture. To make up for that, I did lots of research reading everything I could get my hands on about CODA (children of Deaf Adults), sign language and deaf culture. I contacted you while the book was in rewrites to advise me on where I hit and where I missed the mark.

SP: Having a deaf sister, what is your experience with American Sign Language?
LM: My experience with American Sign Language is actually very limited. My sister was in an oral program (speech and lip-reading only) until she was 12. I also had a deaf foster sister for a year who was in an oral program and did not sign. At age 12 my sister left home to attend a residential deaf school. I was 16 when the family took a 6-week-long sign language course. Oddly enough, my sister and I never lived together after that. She came home in the summer and was miserable. She didn’t want to have anything to do with her hearing family. I had a summer job and was not home very much. I left for college two years later. Since then we have lived 1000+ miles apart and see each other once a year. Now that our mother has died and our father is in a care facility we see each other even less than that.

It was hard to maintain my sign language skills when I only used them once a year. However, six weeks before I would see my sister, I would get out my sign language books and practice every day. In the 1990s, I bought a video course and would practice an hour a day. It would be so much easier today with the Internet.

I love language so I loved creating my own descriptive grammar for the book. So lucky that my editor, Katya Rice understood what I was doing and edited according to the grammar rules, striving hard to stay consistent and still be understandable. You were also very helpful in this process.

SP: Would you discuss a bit of your process. How do you begin writing? What research did you do?
LM: The idea for this book hit me after my sister and her family came to visit us. My sister is married to a deaf man and has two hearing children. She confided that she’d almost married someone else, but his family was so different that she knew it could never work out. I asked how the families were different and she said that he was from an all-deaf family and he would never be able to understand what it was like to grow up being the only deaf person in a hearing family. Like her, her husband was from an all-hearing family. It was a better match.

Then she told me that she was like Harry Potter—that she didn’t know how magical she was until she went away to school.  She told me she didn’t think of me as family because I was hearing. Her real family was the deaf community. This perplexed me as she has two hearing children. Where did they fit in?

I began reading books about CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) and ran into a scenario where there was a hearing girl with deaf parents and a deaf sibling. She had one set of deaf grandparents and another set of hearing grandparents. When she was born, the deaf grandparents were sad because their hearing granddaughter could never really be a part of their strong deaf family. On the other hand, her hearing grandparents were thrilled as they finally had a “normal” grandchild. I thought that was an interesting premise. And as I said in #1 my publisher convinced me to abandon that plot line and switch to the braided narrative. I knew it was risky. I figured the deaf community would object to a hearing person trying to write from their perspective, but ironically most of the criticism for the book has come from hearing people who are aghast at the language, thinking by writing the way I do I’m trying to say that deaf people are stupid. To me this just exposes the reviewers’ ignorance.

SP: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from the book?
LM: I want readers to understand that the struggle between deaf culture and hearing culture isn’t some huge society or community struggle, but on the most basic level a struggle within families. Nine out of every 10 children who are born deaf are born to hearing parents. So 90% of the deaf population has two hearing parents…now here is the kicker…88% of those parents do not know sign language. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

That was certainly true in our family. My father never learned to sign. He had cut off two fingers with a table saw and the rest of his fingers were pretty stiff and inflexible. My mother probably thought she was signing, but she regularly only fingerspelled half a word and her signs were often wrong. Usually, she would give up trying to figure out what my sister was saying or trying to sign to her and pull out a piece of paper and conduct a conversation (or argument) by writing back and forth.

My older sister got a degree in Deaf Education, but that went wrong somehow in a way I don’t understand. She never got a job as a teacher of the deaf and refused to talk to my sister much when she came home for holidays. My brother is younger than my sister. He learned to sign when he was eight at the same 6-week class I attended. Once he left home, he didn’t come home as often as I did, so it was harder for him to keep up with his signing, not seeing his sister for years at a time.

For years, I campaigned for the family to sign whatever they said whenever my sister or her husband was in the room. To not sign was rude. I tried to set a good example. What happened instead was I ended up as the interrupter between my family and my sister and her husband. It was exhausting, especially since I was not that fluent of a signer. I thought this extreme effort on my part would have endeared me to my sister, but instead it only seemed to make her angry. She usually took out her frustrations on me, constantly telling me I was using the wrong sign and that I was stupid. I burst into tears one time after she left, because as she was going out the door she once again she berated me for being rude and stupid. I asked my mother why she was so mean to me and my mother insightfully said, “You are the only one she can be mean to, because you are the only one who understands what she is saying.”

On the other side of the spectrum, most deaf couples have hearing children. In the my reading, I was surprised to learn that most times, only one child became proficient at signing with their parents. I did not find this the case with my sisters’ children. Both can sign, but the younger of the two seems to be more proficient.

SP: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your books for the first time?
LM: In many ways, the story of Jade and Marla is the story of sisters who don’t get along. That happens in many families whether they are both deaf or hearing. I’ve learned in life that the golden rule is to treat people the way you want to be treated. But it never hurts to go a step beyond and treat people better than you want to be treated. And never, stoop to treating someone badly just because they treat you badly.

SP: Do you have any plans for a follow-up or future publications?
LM: This is my last novel. I developed a new writing passion. In preparation for my father’s 90th birthday, I spent a year interviewing him and doing research about his World War II experiences, resulting in a 237-page nonfiction work called Cornfields to Airfield. Suddenly, nonfiction seemed more riveting than fiction. Since that time, I’ve devoted myself to writing local histories, biographies and other historical pieces for a regional magazine.

SP: Anything you would like to add?
LM: Several reviewers criticized the book for not explaining deaf speak. I try not to resort to explainery when writing for younger readers, but respect them enough to know they can figure things out for themselves. Also, my publisher asked me to obtain a blurb from someone associated with the deaf community, which I did. You wrote a very nice blurb, which for some reason was not included on the book.

Strong Deaf won an international award for its uniqueness and creativity, while here in the United States it has not received much attention and what little attention it has received has not been all that positive. To me, that speaks to our nation’s view of differently-abled people, not as strong and capable, but victims needing to be protected and taken care of. I feel that all the characters in the book are strong whether they are hearing or deaf.

SP: I, personally, worried about Marla's chapters being written in ASL gloss because I felt that readers, deaf and hearing, might find it difficult to read; and, I agree that a Letter from the Author or a note explaining why you wrote it that way would have clarified but I also understand that the publishing process didn't go exactly as you wanted. I also appreciate that you stuck to your original decisions and didn't take my advice because you understood your target audience. In my Introduction to Literature course I use a short story and ask my students to respond to the techniques used to convey ASL which are similar to Marla's sections. The students are always divided. Some love it; some loathe it. I think my point here is that it comes down to personal taste. And although I'm not a fan, I still get a "voice" and a clear sense who Marla is.
Strong Deaf was selected as a White Raven Outstanding International Book for Children and Young Adults which is given to books that "deserve worldwide attention because of their universal themes and/or their exceptional and often innovative artistic and literary style and design". I think that is a super big deal.

For more information about Strong Deaf, visit here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie Screening at Gallaudet University

Last night I attended the screening of No Ordinary Hero: The Superdeafy Movie at Gallaudet University. Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the Theatre and Dance Program, the evening opened with Associate Professor and Chair of Theatre Arts Ethan Sinnott who briefly introduced the movie and shared that the screening would follow with a Q&A session.

SuperDeafy is the star of a popular children’s television show who dresses in blue with a bright yellow cape and green briefs. His hair is a giant Pompadour wig with two distinct pieces sticking out on both sides jokingly “for balance”. The emblem on the front of his chest is SuperDeafy’s name sign, a crossed double hand “I Love You”. He’s goofy and animated; the show focuses on teaching ASL along with a good dose of charades that children, deaf and hearing, adore. But SuperDeafy is a character played by Tony Kane (John Maucere), a handsome latte-loving idealist who blogs about local politics at night and sees the character he’s created as so much more than what the character has become.

Meanwhile, a young boy named Jacob is struggling with his parents' choices to remove him from the classroom that includes ASL where he has access to content and Deaf history only to place him within a mainstream program without an interpreter as a sort of tough love approach to learn how to lipread. As perhaps with other deaf characters in film, the mother can sign but the father cannot and because of this he is completely out of touch with his son and his needs.

At one point, Jacob walks down the school hall and looks into the classroom of his former peers who are discussing explorers. Jacob’s new classroom is discussing the same content but he sits silently unable to follow any of the discussion.  If you’re ever been a teacher, a parent, or even experienced this injustice yourself, you will be able to relate with Jacob who more than anything needs a hero.

SuperDeafy is who Jacob sees as his hero but really Tony, the man who plays the character, steps up to become the man we all need him to be for this kid and even for us; and, Jenny, Jacob’s teacher, who invites SuperDeafy to the elementary school Diversity Day is in many ways another hero in the story.

As a fan of comics, I appreciate how the film incorporates panels, captions, and dialogue balloons throughout. The movie is open-captioned but in a way that lends itself to the style of the production, not an add-on.  In a culture where many movie-goers complain about subtitles and captions as distracting, I see this decision as another smart choice made by the creators.

I was in a packed auditorium filled with young children. I laughed as much as they did. Does the film have a message? Well, sure. The message we received, “We have to believe in who we are. That’s the greatest super power of all”. The ending was perfection! I’m not going to spoil it for you but you WILL NOT EXPECT IT and if you’re anything like me you will be delighted. Sometimes the end truly is the beginning.

The film is the first time that a SAG commercial feature film is being executive produced exclusively by deaf executive producers and directed by a deaf director. Executive Producers Liz Tannebaum, Paul Maucere and John Maucere were in attendance for the Q&A session. They agreed that the goal of the film was both to entertain and educate. While they have many goals for the future of the SuperDeafy character, they emphasized that they made the film for fun.

No Ordinary Hero: The Superdeafy Movie is smart and fun, and certainly worth viewing. Check out the website for other screening opportunities. I seriously need to figure out where I can purchase my own SuperDeafy doll!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Science Fiction series + New Book _The Fifth Vertex_ (August 2014)

Thanks to Kim Marie Nicols, a professional with experience in human services and educational programs working with individuals with hearing loss and who is fluent in American Sign Language, for contacting me about these books.

In July, she pointed me toward a Science Fiction series by A.C. Crispin and Kathleen O'Malley. The StarBridge series includes
“a terrific Deaf heroine whose deafness is an asset in creating a relationship with an alien race”. 
 She recommends that we check out Silent Dances (#2) and Silent Songs (#5) in the series and notes that we don’t need to read the first book in order to understand the premise… plus, that first book doesn’t include a deaf character.  

Kim just sent me an email this week about the The Fifth Vertex by Kevin Hoffman which she highly recommends.   

She writes,
“I am a huge fan of Sword and Sorcery fiction, and this book really delivers, faintly reminding me of The Belgariad series by David Eddings. In The Fifth Vertex, the lead hero, Urus, is deaf and fluent in 'Tradesign', a Gestuno-like sign language used throughout his world. Using signs also has a correlation to when he casts spells with his hands or looks at ancient runes on a vertex stone (one looks like the sign for 'open' and touching it brings him to another location). My only complaint is his amazing lipreading capabilities in multiple languages, especially when looking over his shoulder going up a dark spiral staircase. This is so farfetched from reality that it must be part of his magic - in the best of circumstances, only 30% of English words can be lipread. It is definitely a page-turner, with well developed characters and plot, and you won't want to put it down. Just be prepared for the cliff-hanger ending, since this is the first book in a series (which is still unwritten).”

Aside from reading novels, one of her others interests is collecting comics and cartoons pertaining to hearing loss. You can find some of these here:

Thanks Kim!

Friday, September 12, 2014

No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie Screening Next Week at Gallaudet University

If you’re close to Washington, D.C., Gallaudet University will be screening the award-winning film No Ordinary Hero: The Superdeafy Movie September 17 and 18 with a special guest Superdeafy himself! This screening is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the Theatre and Dance Program.

No Ordinary Hero: The Superdeafy Movie opened at the Rome International Film Festival last week in Rome, Georgia and won the Shepard Award for innovative film-making.

SUPERDEAFY must reveal the man behind the cape to find true love and inspire a young deaf boy to believe in himself. The movie follows the evolution of this unique hero. A beloved character and role model, SuperDeafy has a worldwide following. He has been turned into t-shirts, posters and dolls… and now a movie. This film marks the first time in cinematic history that a SAG commercial feature film is being executive produced exclusively by deaf executive producers and directed by a deaf director. The film will be 100% open captioned every screening.

The film is rated PG and is subtitled.

Tickets are free and open to the public and can be reserved at (Wednesday, September 17) and (Thursday, September 18).

If you're not in the Washington, D.C. area, check out the website for other screening opportunities.


Tugg's Overview Video
No Ordinary Hero - Tugg Informational Video from Hilari Scarl on Vimeo.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Interview with Invisible author Cecily Anne Paterson

The 2014 Kindle edition of Invisible caught my eye and I could not put down this book. In fact, I pretty much read this book it two sittings and probably would have finished in one if I didn’t need to sleep. 

The story is told from the perspective of Jazmine Crawford, a 13-year-old deaf girl who functions as a pretty hard of hearing teen when she’s wearing her hearing aid. She is being raised by a single mother and has learned to not complain or share her problems (or even state that she has problems). She doesn’t have any friends and author Cecily Anne Paterson does a great job making the reader feel as small as Jazmine must feel. Jazmine isn’t exactly alone though. She is surrounded by the meanest of the mean girls. I have to admit that I was torn between being an adult who is sympathetic and hoping things work out for one of the mean girls, and my inner-teen who thankfully didn’t experience the wrath of such abuse but was secretly hoping she gets what’s coming! Jazmine does experience a temporary break where she makes some completely amazing friends and finds that she really likes cute boy Liam Costa. This was very much the kind of book that I found myself talking back, “Go Jaz!” and "Come on!" and even a few gasps here and there.

As I mentioned, Jazmine functions pretty much like a deaf girl who can’t hear at all without the use of a hearing aid. With her hearing aid, she can hear somewhat if there isn’t much background noise. She and her mom use Australian sign language (Auslan) but Jazmine also speaks. It really depends on the situation and their comfort level at the time. She attends a mainstream school, actually quite of few of them since this is her fourth school in four years (p. 17), and knows exactly what it means to be an outsider. The author even goes into specifics such as in one instance Jazmine discusses that she can’t hear the doorbell because of the chime being the wrong frequency (p. 235). All of this made me very curious. So, I contacted the author! Read my interview below with Cecily Anne Paterson.

Invisible by Cecily Anne Paterson
Paperback: 270 pages
Publisher: May 25, 2009/ Kindle version 2014
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1291259007

Book description
Jazmine Crawford doesn't make decisions. She doesn't make choices. She doesn't make friends. Jazmine Crawford only wants one thing: to be invisible. For Jazmine, it's a lot easier to take out her hearing aid and drift along pretending that nothing's wrong than it is to admit that she's heartbroken. She starts to come out of her shell when she's forced to be in the school play and even makes friends with bouncy Gabby and chocolate-loving Liam. But can she stand up to the school bully, and is she strong enough to face the truth about what really happened to her dad?

SP: What inspired you to include a deaf character who is fluent in Auslan? A follow up is if you know the language or any deaf users of Auslan.

CAP: Let me be completely upfront. I certainly didn’t set out to write a book about a deaf girl. It all came about because I needed a plot device to stop Jazmine finding out that her father committed suicide. A few generations ago it was possible that children could go through their lives never hearing adults talk about such things, but in our society today, we talk about everything. I knew it wouldn’t take long for a regular, curious nine year old to figure out what happened to her dad, so I needed some reason why she might not overhear those sorts of conversations.
It occurred to me that if she literally couldn’t overhear them, it would work, and hey presto, Jazmine had a hearing disability. However, I needed her to be able to hear most things for the rest of the book, so I gave her a hearing aid which got lost in all the confusion of finding out her father had died while she and her mum were on holidays.
After that, it just seemed a nice thing that her friend Liam would be able to connect with her by knowing a little bit of Auslan. It became an immediate shared experience to help them bond.
I don’t actually know any deaf users of Auslan myself and I’m feeling nervous about this whole interview because the deaf experience is not something I have any first-hand knowledge about. I assured myself when I was feeling some trepidation, writing it, with the thought that perhaps I might step on people’s toes, or people might say it’s complete rubbish, that all writers write about things they haven’t experienced. It’s all about doing reasonable research. Plus a bit of common sense imagination.

SP:  There was only one instance when Jazmine was in the garden and her mom called to her from the house asking where she was that made me think “hmmm” but then I figured that my version of the house layout and their house could be different and her mom could be quite close… plus, windows could be open. Overall, I found her quite believable.
In the About the Author section, there is a statement that you attended an international boarding school and understood the feeling of being an outsider. I'm sure this gave you a great deal of experience relating to Jazmine. Could you tell me about your research process for making her a realistic deaf character? I should ask the same about your research process for "mean girls" but I'm almost afraid to know. 

CAP: I read a few websites of different Deaf associations to learn a little about the culture. I also had a long conversation with a friend who is an audiologist. She explained a little about how children react to hearing aids. I asked her, “So, do you think this bit is realistic?” about different parts of the story and she said yes or no according to her experience. I did try to get some deaf people to read the story before I published it to get their feedback and quite a few said yes but none actually got back to me. I took that as meaning that I was at least in the ballpark.
I’m very aware that there is a whole deaf culture out there and I was totally intrigued to watch the communication between a few deaf families holidaying at the same place as us a few years ago. However, I didn’t want Jazmine to be immersed in that world because that wasn’t the story I was writing. I imagined that if I was her mum, knowing nothing about deaf culture and having a child with hearing loss, how would I help her to see the world? I decided that if she was my child, I’d get her as much hearing aid help as I could, learn a bit of Auslan and use it at home, but still think and live, and expect her to live, in the mainstream culture.
As for the ‘mean girls’ research, all I can say that if you’re a girl and you’ve ever been to school between the ages of 10 and 15, you don’t really need to do any research on that…

SP:  Jazmine has a difficult time expressing herself even though she's bilingual (English and Auslan). Miss Fraser was able to offer her several outlets to express herself. She's your creation, could you speak on Jazmine's behalf and explain why these tools worked for her? 

CAP: Jazmine’s family never talked about anything that mattered. Her mother, especially, is awkward and nervous with her own communication and prone to cut herself off from other people, so it’s no wonder that Jazmine prefers to be invisible in everyday life. She’s literally never learned another way. Miss Fraser introduces her to journaling and gives her words to say on a stage and all of a sudden, it’s like Jazmine’s world opens up. I think she simply never knew that you could do any of it. And, more importantly, she never thought that anyone would ever think she was important enough to listen to and interact with. After being told all her life that she should keep her true feelings from other people to avoid being hurt, Jazmine is amazed to find that actually, that’s not true at all.  

SP:  What do you hope that readers will take away or learn from Invisible? Aside from The Secret Garden is a great book and teachers like Miss Fraser rock! 

CAP: I hope that readers will find their own voice and learn to use it. I hope they’ll look for great mentors and good friends. I hope they’ll find a love for nature. I hope they’ll look beyond their bad circumstances and be able to see a future. Mostly, I hope they’ll understand that sadness and hardship doesn’t have to become a cage of pain for the rest of their lives.

SP:  What advice do you have for young readers ?  

CAP: Be brave. Don’t just follow what everyone else follows. Really seek out what’s truly good in the world, and who’s behind it. Honesty and love should always go together. Be mindful and act, rather than just react. Seriously? I could go on and on and on.
If you want to be a writer, I would say ‘try and give it up’. If you can’t and you must write then write something that’s honest and real. We need more of it in the world.

SP: Anything you'd like to add... such as maybe a bit about a sequel?
CAP: Yes. There is a sequel to Invisible and it’s coming in November 2014. When people first started asking for a sequel I was reluctant. I couldn’t honestly see what else could happen to Jazmine. I mean, she’d reached her mountain top. Where else was there to go? But then it occurred to me that you can’t just live on a mountain top the rest of your life. You’ve got to go down again sometime.
In many ways, Jazmine’s good experiences were given to her. Miss Frazer gave her the gift of believing in her. Gabby adopted her as a friend. Liam picked her out of a crowd. Yes, she had to fight a bit, but it was still only fighting to be able to accept what she’d been given. I had to ask myself: what would happen if she lost the gifts she’d been given? If good things turned out to be not so good?
The new book is called Invincible. It’s about Jazmine facing her fears and finding her own way. All the old characters are there (except Shalini) but they might not be there in the ways you expect. And there are a few new ones too.
For news about the new book and an opportunity to read it before it’s released, readers can sign up on my website:
SP: Thank you so much! I can’t wait to read about Jazmine’s adventures!