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


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


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


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


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


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 | The Pitiful Human-Lizard, Jason Loo

00cover01A Toronto superhero with a dead end day job whose name would strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting bad guy… what’s not to love about Jason Loo’s Pitiful Human-LizardIt took me a while to track down a copy of this book. I went from The Beguiling to The Silver Snail to a couple of comic book stores in Kensington Market only to find out they were either completely sold out or (in the case of the Kensington stores), they happened to be closed that day. I was having a case of Pitiful Human Lizard luck myself, it seemed, but more than that, I learned just how popular and how much a phenomenon this comic book series has become. A lesson to all of you then: if you want to get your own copy of this series, snap up a copy at your local comic book store before it’s too late. (For the record, I finally found my copy in the Toronto talent section of Silver Snail, by the Eaton Centre. There were two other copies left on the shelf when I left, and the staff member who spoke with me said she was planning to check it out herself after her shift. So like I said, snap up your copy today.)

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. This Toronto superhero story is absolutely hilarious, an everyman loveable loser-type bundle of awesome. The Human Lizard is Lucas Barrett, an office worker who can barely afford to pay for his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lessons and who covers up his superhero exploits by telling his mother that he’s learning to play the harmonica. He signs up for a clinical trial for a super healing drug and, well, the rest is superhero history… with a pitiful twist, of course.

I absolutely love the Toronto setting. This story features a hot dog vendor, a streetcar and an epic superhero battle in one of my favourite Toronto landmarks — the Royal Ontario Museum! A ROM security guard makes a cameo in a hilarious bit that will make other museum or art gallery workers recognize a bit of themselves in him.

Loo’s self-deprecating humour is what makes this story so fantastic, and punchlines and sight gags are littered throughout. Particularly effective are Lucas Barrett’s interactions with his parents, and the scenes where the Human Lizard joins forces with the (much more traditional superhero type) Mother Wonder.

Author and artist Jason Loo was kind enough to provide some excerpts of the book for my blog, so check these out:




The Pitiful Human-Lizard is available at various locations in Toronto: Silver Snail, The Beguiling, The Comic Pile, and Dr. Comics. You may also purchase it online and check out the Pitiful Human-Lizard Facebook page for a schedule of upcoming events and signings!

Review | Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang


I was completely blown away by Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, a two volume graphic novel series that depicts the 1898 Boxer Rebellion in China from the perspective of both sides.

In Boxers, Little Bao has had enough of the way foreign missionaries and soldiers have been robbing and bullying Chinese peasants. Channeling the power of ancient Chinese gods, he raises an army of Boxers, kung fu-trained peasants, and they wage a rebellion against the foreigners. Despite their lack of resources, the power of the gods is on their side, and they are successful in their fight.

17210470I love how Yang keeps the story complex — it would be all too easy to simply cheer on the Boxers in their fight, but Yang shows how their anger drives the Boxers towards violence, sometimes beyond reason. The fight as well isn’t just against foreigners, but also against “secondary devils” — Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity. In a particularly powerful moment, Bao and his army “rescue” a train of Chinese peasants from foreign missionaries, violently slaughtering the missionaries and then turning to the peasants in triumph. Rather than expressing gratitude, one of the Chinese peasants picks up a Bible and attempts to continue the prayer. This not only confounds Bao, it enrages him — a Chinese turning Christian is a betrayal, and Bao’s response, coupled with Yang’s sketches of the utterly terrified peasants, is chilling.

Boxers begins as a coming of age, kung fu training story, and turns into a potent emotional wallop of political history. Bao is a complicated hero figure and ultimately a tragic figure of a man. War scars you, and Yang does not shy away from depicting this scarring even amongst the fantastical illustrations of Chinese gods. Bao’s struggles feel real, and Yang writes his character so well that you understand Bao’s choices even when you can’t agree with them.

Possibly my favourite part of Boxers is the Red Lanterns, an all-female army led by Mei-wen that joins the Boxers in their fight. It’s great seeing women warriors play such an important role in the rebellion, and shattering glass ceilings all the way back in 1898.

17210471A woman inspired by Joan of Arc is the heroine of Saints, which explores the other side of the story. An unwanted fourth daughter, Vibiana finds love and belonging with a kind Christian couple, and converts to their religion. We see the Boxer Rebellion from the perspective of Christian Chinese, to whom Bao’s army aren’t heroes but rather terrifying figures. While Bao’s position in the rebellion has always been clear-cut, Vibiana is much more conflicted, and in many ways, a much more intriguing character, torn between loyalty  to her heritage and devotion to the community that took her in.

Saints is disappointingly much shorter than Boxers — without the kung fu training montages or the need to set up the beginning of the rebellion, Viviana’s tale is kept relatively blood-free until the second half. I wish Yang had delved a bit deeper into the perspective of the Christian Chinese, particularly what so many of them had found appealing about the new religion. Still Vibiana’s story is compelling enough to give pause to Bao’s victory, and when their stories intersect — a rather brief encounter where neither knows the other’s story — Yang’s restraint in the scene belies the emotional impact of the moment.

Boxerand Saints is a powerful story and its impact is heightened by presenting both perspectives. The back of the book has the tag line “Every war has two faces” and the covers side by side illustrate this with discomfiting symmetry. Both these books bring the Boxer Rebellion to life and make this moment in history feel real and more than that, feel personal.


Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of these books in exchange for an honest review.