5 Must-Read Books with Deaf Characters

 

Ever since I watched Why Not Theatre’s excellent ASL/English Prince Hamlet a few months ago, I’ve been on the lookout for other examples of Deaf representation in arts and culture. As a bookworm, my interest naturally fell on finding books that featured Deaf characters or touched upon Deaf Culture.

I should point out that I’m not Deaf, CODA nor hard of hearing, so I’m in no way an expert on how good or how problematic a book is when representing Deaf Culture. That being said, below are books I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. Most of my online searches for books on Deaf Culture and about Deaf characters often showed only academic texts or children’s books teaching the ASL alphabet, so I hope compiling this list will help other interested bookworms find their next read.

Finally — I’m always looking for my next great read. If you know of any fantastic titles I can add to this list, let me know!

1. El Deafo by Cece Bell

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A birthday gift from a friend, this adorable graphic memoir is by turns hilarious and bittersweet. Based in part on the author’s own experiences of growing up, El Deafo is about a young bunny, Cece, who is the only deaf kid at her new school. Cece creates a superhero persona ‘El Deafo’ to gain confidence when trying to make new friends, and uses the super-powered hearing from her Phonic Ear to help her classmates keep out of trouble. See my full review here.

2. Signs of Attraction by Laura Brown

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A deaf/hard of hearing college student falls in love with the hot deaf guy in her class. Carli has hidden her deafness all her life, and I love how her relationship with Reed helps her come to terms with her deafness, feel okay with needing CART services or close captioning, and learn ASL. The story was a lot more intense than the light-hearted romance I expected (content warning: child abuse, violence against women, suicide), and there were plot threads that I wish had been explored more (Reed’s birth father, Carli’s mother and sisters), but overall, I really liked this book.

I also love how signs are depicted in this book – most of the signed conversations are depicted in italics, but because Carli is just beginning to learn sign language, whenever characters use signs that she hasn’t learned yet, the author also describes the gesture. The scenes involving the sign for “falling in love” are particularly squee-worthy.

The author is hard of hearing and her next book Friend (with Benefits) Zone features two Deaf main characters.

3. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

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This funny, hipsterish middle-grade/young adult story is about a deaf teenage girl who accepts a dare to become the manager of her high school band ‘Dumb’ and land them a paying gig within a month. Fuelled mostly by passion, Dumb is great at making noise but horrible at actually creating music together. Piper’s efforts to enforce harmony amongst the members often go hilariously awry, but the novel’s heart lies in the characters’ sincere love for music, and Piper’s realization that being a good manager goes beyond just making the next quick buck.

I also really liked the family dynamics. A decision by Piper’s parents leads to a major turning point in her relationship with them, her rebellious younger brother turns out to be a staunch ally, and she confronts her complex emotions about her baby sister having cochlear implants.

4. Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Journey of Love, Identity, and Adoption by Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

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Brandi Rarus came of age at a very exciting time in Deaf history – she was a college student during the Gallaudet University 1988 student and faculty protest for a Deaf President, and ended up marrying one of the student leaders Tim Rarus. I loved learning about her life and seeing this period from her perspective as a deaf woman who grew up oral in a hearing household. For example, she writes about how Tim snubbed her at their first meeting because, having grown up in a multi-generational Deaf family, he viewed her as “too oral.”

The section about Zoe was the final third of the book, and I liked that Rarus featured the perspectives of the multiple people involved in the adoption, including Zoe’s birth parents and the family who had originally intended to adopt her. Rarus’ love for her child and joy over welcoming Zoe into their family is beautiful and heartwarming, but I felt bad for Zoe’s birth father. BJ wanted to raise his daughter and his parents had promised their support, but the birth mother Jess refused to give Zoe up to him (because it meant that she didn’t want her child, whereas giving the child up to a two-parent household meant “giving the child a better life”), and the adoption counselor eventually strong-armed him into agreeing that a traditional two-parent household (“with a mother and a father”) would be best. Even Jess’ decision to give up her child was heavily influenced by her religious mother, who basically convinced her that raising the child herself doomed Jess and the baby to a lifetime on welfare whereas adoption was presented in ridiculously fairy tale-like terms.

5. Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

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I discovered this book at a local bookstore and thought it was a great introduction to Deaf history. I was fascinated to learn about sign language’s roots in indigenous languages within the Deaf community, which developed as a natural form of communication despite attempts to teach Deaf people speech. I was also horrified to learn about the violence in forcing Deaf children to learn spoken languages, which delays their introduction to education in other areas.

I hadn’t realized that Sign Language used to be viewed by hearing people as only a gestural adaptation of English, until linguist William Stokoe argued about ASL having a linguistic structure and therefore being a language in its own right. I also hadn’t realized that Gallaudet University, which I’ve heard is one of the best post-secondary school for Deaf students, has had only hearing presidents until the late 1980s. Sacks covers the Deaf President Now protests, from a more detached yet detailed perspective than Rarus did, and that was my favourite part of this book.

Review | Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia de Luce 8), Alan Bradley

28814726Flavia de Luce is back, and Bradley has finally recovered some of the magic that made me fall in love with the series in the first place! I’ve never been a fan of Bradley’s decision to take Flavia to Toronto and involve her with the spy organization Nide, so I’m thrilled to see her back in England discovering a body in her hometown.

Flavia goes to a reclusive woodcutter’s house to deliver a message from the vicar’s wife, only to find him dead, tied spread eagled and upside down to his door. The clues: a lottery ticket and a collection of Crispian Crumpet children’s books. The witness: a tortoiseshell cat. Flavia’s investigation takes her around the village and into London as she digs into the decades-old death of an author and meets a colourful cast of characters, including a neighbourhood witch, a teenage aspiring singer, and the real-life Crispian Crumpet. The mystery is full of twists and turns, and while I figured out one of the big mid-book reveals pretty much off the bat, I certainly never saw the ultimate big reveal coming, nor the bad guy’s motivation.

 

Brinded Cat gives us a more mature Flavia, still geeking out about chemistry and blood patterns, but slightly more subdued in her reproach. Rather than playing mischievous scientific pranks on her sisters and angling for her father’s undivided attention, this Flavia worries about her father’s health (he’s in the hospital and she’s unable to visit) and wonders about the seemingly irreparable rift between her and her sisters. Flavia’s relationship with Dogger and Undine really come to the fore in this book, with Flavia struggling to come to terms with the changes in her family while she was away and also with the fact that she’s no longer the youngest child in the household. In one scene, she scolds Undine for some mischief, only to learn that Dogger had helped her do it. Flavia felt betrayed by Dogger, not because he did anything wrong, but rather because Undine appears to have taken on Flavia’s role in Dogger’s life. It’s a really well-written moment, as is the part where Flavia looks at Undine with affection tinged with annoyance, a sort of maturation into the older sister mode.

The end of the book is just heartbreaking. Seriously, Alan Bradley, what was that for? I personally wish it had been moved earlier in the story, or at least that we had a bit more time to process it, rather than ending the book so abruptly, cliffhanger style.

Still, overall, a wonderful, captivating book, and I’m so glad to see Flavia back to form.

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The City of Mirrors (The Passage #3), Justin Cronin

26891429I loved Justin Cronin’s The Passage when I first read it years ago, so I was thrilled to receive a Binge Box from Penguin Random House Canada a few months ago with the rest of the trilogy, including an advance reading copy of the conclusion, The City of Mirrors

I admit I was a bit apprehensive at first, since I re-read The Passage to remind myself of the story, and found it didn’t quite hold up to my memory of the experience. Whereas I loved it so much at first read that I lugged the almost-1000-page tome around on the subway to and from work, I found the second read interesting but not quite as gripping anymore. It may have been my mood or just the lack of novelty the second time around, but for whatever reason, I was afraid the magic was gone.

This fear intensified with the second book, The Twelvewhich to be honest, I struggled to finish. I think my main problem with it is that much of it felt very much like the same events of The Passage, only from a different perspective. I already knew how that turned out, and I was impatient to get on with the story of Peter, Sara, Amy and Alicia.

But then I read The City of Mirrors and my fears were allayed. Here was some of that old magic I remember from my first read of The Passage. The Twelve have been destroyed, and human survivors are beginning to settle down and rebuild their lives. Peter, wanting nothing more than a quiet life after years of battling virals, is pulled back into a leadership role by the president, who wants his charisma and respected status in the community to help her rally the survivors into a working, sustainable society. Unfortunately, they’re wrong to think the threat is over. The ultimate viral Zero is still undead and well, and he wants to use Alicia, now a viral/human hybrid, to hunt down and destroy Amy, the one person who can defeat him.

City of Mirrors recaptures the wonderful blend of action-packed scenes and quiet moments of despair that had made Passage so compelling. The cast of characters has grown so large that I honestly couldn’t keep track of who all of them were anymore, but the sense of tragedy when the settlement is attacked still had an emotional impact. There’s a moment where children and their mothers are ordered to hide in a particular building while other able bodied adults are conscripted to fight, and Sara and her colleagues are armed with guns to protect them. When Sara points out that the guns won’t be much use against virals, she is told that they aren’t for virals but rather humans who would stop at nothing to find refuge. The moment is both chilling and tragic, a fraught reminder of how far we would go to survive, and how much those in charge must do to keep us from surviving at the cost of those more vulnerable.

I also enjoyed the love story between Peter’s son and a deaf woman raised by Sara. I love how he taught himself to sign for her, and I especially love the scene where she tells him she was going to introduce herself to the woman next door. He asks if he should go with her to interpret, particularly since the woman’s husband earlier had been a bit uncomfortable communicating with a deaf person, and she waves him off, signing that women will have no problem communicating with each other. I love that confidence, and I love that it turns out to be true and that the women do strike a friendship. It’s a moment of humanity and connection in the eye of the storm so to speak, as no one is yet aware of the impending war, and it made the characters real for me just like a casual conversation about a classic children’s book made the characters real for me in The Passage.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending other than it feels fitting. The climax was messy and spiritual and brought to fore the full powers of Amy and Alicia and Peter all working together. Not all of the characters got quite the happily ever after I was hoping for, which quite frankly I think they deserved after almost 3000 pages of battling virals, but that’s pretty much in line with the rest of the series. Cronin gave Amy almost godlike powers, yet throughout the series has resister deux ex machina easy solutions. The author has never held back from leaving beloved characters scarred by their experiences, and true to form, the ending is bittersweet.

I do like that Cronin gives us an epilogue — a glimpse far into humanity’s future as evidenced by the reports and lectures scattered throughout the series, where the stories of Peter and Amy and their friends are now part of history or possibly even of mythology. No one is sure of how real these stories are anymore, and scholars speak of their significance much like contemporary scholars speak of religious texts and ancient mythology. An upcoming landmark event sparks a return to the past, and what these characters in the future discover provides the bittersweet taste that Cronin leaves us with.

I don’t know if I’ll read these books again, as I think much of their magic is in the initial experience, but I’m glad I read them. And certainly, if you’ve read and enjoyed The Passage, it’s worth reading through to make it to the end.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of City of Mirrors and for the rest of the awesome Binge Box. It may have taken me longer than a long weekend to binge through the entire library, but I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the treat.