Voices of children’s authors
When I was writing Feathers, I had studied sign language for many years, but there were signs that I couldn’t remember, and I would look some of them up, and then I would have to sit and try to figure out how do I write that this is the sign for death, a finger moving from the ear to the mouth.
How do I write that this is the sign for hunger, a hand pulling itself down the belly. It’s this kind of creative process mixed with the research and back to the creative, but all along the creative side of my brain is working to figure out how to put it on the page.
It’s hard because I hadn’t realized when I wrote Feathers that there weren’t a lot of books about deaf culture. There had never been a book about an African American kid who was deaf. I just didn’t know that, but I knew that I was writing realistic fiction, and I was writing about different cultures, and there are so many cultures in the world.
There is mine, the different cultures I come from. There’re the cultures that I’ve found. There’s the cultures that aren’t even acknowledged as cultures. I thought it’s amazing to have grown up and become this age and not ever have read a book about the deaf community.
I decided to make Sean deaf because Feathers is a book about the different ways people have hope in the world or search for hope in the world. I wanted Sean’s journey in there, the journey of being deaf in a hearing family, and what does that mean.
I think it’s something we don’t think about a lot. I think we think of deafness as other. We think of it as something that is not a culture but, too often, people think of it as a handicap. Deaf should be a capital D just like African-American culture.
I wanted to put on the page a kid who had his culture, who had the deaf community and his world and a supportive family that wasn’t saying be like us, but saying you’re a gift to us, and we wanna move into your world.
Also his longing, because they all had longings, and his longing was to be a part of both worlds. He never says I want to be a hearing person. He says I wanna be a deaf person who can exist in both worlds the way you as a hearing person exist in my world.
It was important for me in talking about the ways people have hope and the ways people move through the world and showing this world through this group of young people. When I first started writing it, it was actually called The Jesus Boy. And Jesus Boy was the main character.
As the story started unfolding I thought, this is not simply about him but about this whole world of kids and their strength and their weaknesses and their journeys.
In Hello Universe, the character, Valencia is deaf, and I am a hearing person and I don’t have a lot of experience with hard of hearing or deaf communities, so knowing that it was very important to me to depict her authentically, respectfully and three-dimensionally, especially right now as more marginalized voices are coming forward.
I was very aware to almost the point of panic that I was writing outside of my community. So I knew I needed to do, and I wanted to do a significant amount of research. And so I reached out to the American Society for Deaf Children and through Beth Benedict there I was introduced to a woman named Gina Oliva. And Gina is a deaf advocate. She is an author herself.
And she wrote a book about going to school in the mainstream as a deaf student. So I read the book of course and then I actually met her. And she was so welcoming, inviting and encouraged me to ask any question I had, even if it was embarrassing or maybe looked foolish. And I knew that I would have to ask them, even if I did look foolish, because she had to be depicted authentically.
I also took sign language classes at the Deaf Hearing Communication Center in Swarthmore, PA. And, you know, although Valencia doesn’t use sign language everything that when you’re researching, all of it informs, right? So I was able to interact with the instructor and ask her questions. So research was a key part of specifically Valencia. It’s a key part of any book.
But any time you’re writing about something that you’re not familiar with, obviously you have to do a significant amount of research. And it’s a great process, not just because it adds richness and authenticity to the book, but I’m just a curious person by nature so there’s hardly any topic that you could ask me to research that I won’t find interesting.
So just the value of researching, even if I don’t use all the information, is energizing and I love it. So I love to learn new things and, you know, I hope it informed the story well.
So, there were a bunch of reasons for why the graphic novel format was just perfect for El Deafo. One of the less big reasons was the book is a superhero story. I mean it’s about me using this giant hearing aid to hear my teachers wherever they were in the entire school. I mean that’s a super power. So, comics have always been one of the main formats for superhero stories. So that just made sense.
But the main reason, the bigger reason was the speech balloons that are such a big part of graphic novels. So the speech balloons I was able to use to sort of show the experience of being deaf. In the very beginning of the story I actually do have hearing, and when I was about four and a half I got really sick and was in the hospital for a couple weeks and lost my hearing during that time in the hospital.
So in the book there are speech balloons that start out with text that is black, but it gradually fades away to gray and then to nothing. And so the reader sort of is wondering, just like I probably wondered as a kid, well, what’s going on? Suddenly I don’t understand anymore. That’s what the reader’s thinking, and that’s what I was thinking too probably.
Then later after it’s official that I’ve lost my hearing, a lot of the speech balloons are simply blank. And in that case the reader is also trying to be exactly — or was trying to do exactly what I was trying to do, which is figure out what was going on by looking around me for other clues, just like you’re looking around the panel trying to figure out what’s going on in the story. So, blank speech balloons when I couldn’t hear and then speech to me today and it’s very garbled.
I have to be able to see the person speak. If I can’t see them, then I have no idea what they’re saying. It’s sort of I can hear vowels but not consonants. And so the speech in those cases in certain panels where I’m not looking at the speaker, it’s all garbled. It’s nonsense and gibberish. And so once again kids reading the book are having to figure out what’s going on from the other clues in certain panels.
So it was just a perfect format and much more immediate. If I had tried to describe what I was hearing, I would have lost my readers, and they wouldn’t know what it felt like. But they’re right there in the moment, and they know — every time they know exactly what I’m hearing, what I’m not hearing. They know what I’m hearing just by reading those speech balloons and they are right there with me, and the experience becomes their experience, too, so it’s a great format for showing deafness I think.
A student or child with deafness or hard-of-hearing disabilities has deficits in language and speech development due to a diminished or lack of auditory response to sound. Students will demonstrate varying degrees of hearing loss which often results in difficulty acquiring spoken language.How does hearing loss affect children's development? ›
About Hearing and Development
Hearing sounds and words helps children learn to talk and understand. A child with hearing loss misses out on these sounds. This can cause problems with speaking, reading, school success, and social skills. It is important to have your child tested if you think they have trouble hearing.
Speak clearly, slowly, distinctly, but naturally, without shouting or exaggerating mouth movements. Shouting distorts the sound of speech and may make speech reading more difficult. Say the person's name before beginning a conversation.Why are deaf and hard of hearing children often language deprived? ›
The decision of families to only use spoken language with deaf children too often results in language deprivation for these children. It is imperative to prevent language deprivation in all deaf children, and this requires addressing the usual reliance on auditory input for language acquisition.