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 | Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, Ann Y. K. Choi

29218113Korean-Canadian teenager Mary is tired of having to manage her family’s convenience store. Part of her wants nothing more than to be modern and Canadian, but another part of her is unable to fully leave behind the expectations of her traditional Korean family. This dilemma plays out in different ways: she uses the name Mary but can’t help that her parents sometimes call her by her Korean birth name Yu-Rhee. She is in love with her English teacher, but her parents want her to set her up with a Korean boy named Joon-Ho. There’s also the unspoken family secret about her mother’s estranged sister, and how that may tie in to Mary’s own struggle.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety had its weaknesses — in particular, a scene of sexual assault felt tacked on, a tired coming of age trope that was added unnecessarily and then not fully explored. Mary’s crush on her older English teacher also felt cliche, and its outcome inevitable. That being said, I think these two things bugged me mostly because the rest of the book was so strong that any weakness really stood out.

I love how Choi writes about the immigrant experience. I love the sharp observations about feeling the need to represent an entire culture, simply because you are still a minority within the community. One character says of a fellow Korean: “He makes the rest of us look bad. Like we’re all a bunch of idiots who can’t make it here. Don’t you get it? People like him make them suspicious of all of us.” (page 198) Joon-Ho and his family do some really questionable, sometimes villainous things, but their struggle is also a really smart depiction of the pressure around immigration. I love how Choi portrayed Joon-Ho’s need to be as close to perfect as possible in order to achieve residency in Canada, and the additional stress of having your family’s hopes of immigrating lie on your shoulders.

I also love how Choi highlights the rarity of Asian representation in Canadian literature. When Mary’s mother asks her why she never reads books about Korean or Chinese characters, Mary responds that there aren’t any, or at least none that she’s aware of. This story was set in the 1980s, and thankfully today, there are a lot more options available for CanLit books featuring Asian characters. Still, Mary’s mother’s response resonated with me: “You want to know about feeling invisible? It’s always black and white in Canada. The Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, anyone from Asia are the true invisibles. Do you think anyone really sees us when they throw pennies at us for a newspaper?”

Overall, I really like how Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety portrayed the experiences of Mary, her mother and their family. I especially love how Mary realizes she can be Korean even without ascribing to traditions that don’t quite fit her: “I could claim my name myself. I could have everyone call me Yu-Rhee.” It’s a fantastic owning of identity, and realizing that one has the power to claim both sides of a dual identity for themselves, even with something as simple as a name.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

#CanLit in Mississauga | Coming Soon

Heads up Mississauga #CanLit lovers: some exciting news coming your way this winter/spring!

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Image courtesy of the event website

In conversation with Charles Pachter and Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, March 29, 6 pm, Noel Ryan Auditorium, Mississauga Central Library

Tickets: FREE, book on Eventbrite

First up, Margaret Atwood (yes, the Margaret Atwood!) hits the stage at the Mississauga Central Library on March 29th. I am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s work, so you can bet I booked my tickets immediately and will be staking out a claim on a front row seat.

Atwood and Pachter will be in conversation about their book The Journals of Susanna Moodie (first published in 1970 and reprinted in 1997). The book features poems by Atwood, taking on Moodie’s voice, about life in rural Canada in the early 19th century, and Pachter’s illustrations of these poems.

The event is organized in line with Mississauga Museums’ exhibition The Journals of Susanna Moodie, featuring prints on loan from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and can be viewed at the Bradley Museum until April 17, 2016.

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Publication date February 23, 2016, YA Fiction

Mississauga will also be getting its time in the #CanLit sun in Mona Awad’s upcoming novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. The story is set in Mississauga (or as the book’s protagonist Lizzie calls it, “Misery Saga”), and features an teenage girl’s struggle with her weight and body image. The author will be visiting Montreal and Toronto (check out the full list of publisher’s events for this book), so heads up if you’re interested.

The book sounds hilarious, and I definitely have it on my TBR pile, so keep an eye out for a review forthcoming on this blog.

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Image from Facebook

The Pitiful Human Lizard Issue # 7 by Jason Loo

Publication Date April 20, 2016, Pre-order at your local comic book shop

I’ve long been a fan of Jason Loo’s Pitiful Human Lizard comic book series about a self-deprecating Toronto superhero whose adventures are hilariously endearing.

In issue 7, coming this spring, our hero is stranded in the suburbs of Mississauga, with only his costume and not enough cash for bus fare back to the city. Will he get back home in time for work the next day? Will he discover the seedy underbelly of Square One’s parking lot? And above all, will he team up with iconic former Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion? We’ll have to wait until April to find out!

Review | Loyalist to a Fault (Dead Kid Detective Agency 3), Evan Munday

DeadKidLoyalistI’m a huge fan of Evan Munday’s Dead Kid Detective Agency series, so I was thrilled to hear that book 3 was coming out this Fall. Loyalist to a Fault has all the trademarks that make Munday’s writing such a treat — 1980s/90s pop culture references, middle school hijinks (school dance!) and a historical mystery. Throw in a ghost pirate who breaks into the town’s museum, and my little museum nerdy heart was all a-twitter.

The unifying thread behind the Dead Kid series is a mix of Scooby Doo meets Nancy Drew goes goth — October Schwartz befriends some tween ghosts in her neighbourhood cemetery, discovers that they’ve all died under mysterious circumstances, and vows to solve each of their murders in turn. The ghost whose death is investigated here is 18th century British settler Cyril Cooper, whose story involves spies, pirates and some mysterious historical documents involving his family.

Munday ratchets up the antics in this instalment, which wasn’t a huge draw for me, but which I admit may appeal to the kids this book was actually written for. Among the ghosts’ superpowers is the ability to detach and reattach body parts, and all the tossing about of heads and limbs was just a bit much for me.

I did enjoy the middle grade romances in this book’s subplot, in particular a couple of romantic possibilities for October herself and a potential match between a couple of the dead kids. The scene at the school dance was hilarious and fun, and shows just how perfect a battleground a school gym can be. I did wish the subplot involving October’s living friends was explored a bit more (the resolution felt a bit of a letdown), but I’m glad there are several more books in the series for this to play out.

I’m a total museum geek, and I especially geek out over historical archives, so I was glad that Munday made the Sticksville Museum such a huge part of this story. As a fan of British cozy mysteries in small towns, I have to admit being disappointed that the Sticksville historical celebration wasn’t quite given as much focus as I’d hoped, but to be fair, I can imagine that most other readers would have chosen to focus on ghostly pirate battles as well.

The mystery behind Cyril’s death is solved, somewhat, but a whole lot of other questions remain. We end the book knowing who the murderer is, but unless I missed it completely, still completely in the dark on the motive behind the killing. Instead, Munday teases us with some big revelations about the overarching mystery of the series, hinting at a major series-end reveal that would explain everything. More significantly, he also hints at a link to October, which ties her in even more with the ghost kids and possibly explains the mysterious phone calls she’s been receiving.

Munday is as witty and full of pop culture references as ever, but none of the lines quite struck me as much as the witticisms in his earlier books. I’d also be curious to know how his middle grade readers respond to the humour — I geek out over it because I understand the references to 80s cartoons and 90s TV shows, but I’d love to know how it connects with kids born after 2000.

Overall, this is a solid instalment in the series, one that seems stronger as an instalment in a larger story than as a stand alone title. I’m intrigued by all the various plot threads Munday has in the air, and am curious to see how they all tie together in the end. And if you’re looking for a fun book to read this Halloween, you just can’t go wrong with a ghost pirate mystery.

Event Recap | Simon and Schuster Canada Fall 2015 Preview

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One of the best parts about being a blogger is finding out what great titles are coming up from your favourite publishers. So when Simon and Schuster Canada invited me to a Preview Party for their Fall 2015 children’s / middle grade / young adult titles, I jumped at the opportunity.

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As befits a children’s book party, Simon and Schuster Canada treated the little kid in all of the attendees by providing a table full of candies inspired by the various books in their catalogue. My favourite was the “pigeon poop” Oreo-chocolate-candies inspired by Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key. They also had a selection of pop and a snow cone station.

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We got to hear about the various titles in their Fall 2015 catalogue. I was particularly intrigued by R.J. Anderson’s A Pocketful of Murder, mostly because I’ve always been a sucker for magic and mysteries, but also because of the book’s beautiful, whimsical cover. art.

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Another highlight is the new Kevin Sylvester book MINRS, about a twelve year old boy and his friends fighting for survival in a mining tunnel when their space colony is attacked. Sci fi, action and adventure are all my cup of tea, so I was glad to have been able to pick up a copy at the event.

I was also able to get a copy of Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key, about an apothecary’s apprentice who has to deal with a cult killing the apothecaries in his city. I’ve just finished this book and it’s fantastic. Sands sprinkles his novel with codes and puzzles that his teenage protagonist Christopher must solve to get to the bottom of the mystery, and the answers are simple enough that we can somewhat solve right alongside Christopher, yet require just enough arcane knowledge (e.g. Latin, apothecary symbols) that we wouldn’t be able to solve it ourselves.

Also introduced at the preview is Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rulesabout a world where the children of royalty are held hostage to the various countries’ treaty of peace. I was able to read an advance reading copy from the Ontario Book Blogger Meet-Up, and I absolutely loved the book. The ending complicated my enjoyment of it somewhat, but I think it’s ultimately a testament to the author’s talent that she has crafted such a dark and complex world where there are no easy answers. The most mature of all the titles in this preview, and certainly one that I think will give university students and adults in general so much to chew on. My full review on Goodreads here.

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Finally, the publisher also presented two children’s books. Rob Gonsalves’ Imagine a World is just beautifully illustrated, and Adam Lerhaupt’s Please, Open this Book! is a highly imaginative take on what happens to characters in a book after you close the covers. Fair warning: you may not dare close another book again.

Review | Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

23250087Dan has been having a hell of a summer. His dad came out as gay and walked out on his family. HIs mom is depressed and unable to get her wedding cake business off the ground. His family has lost their money and has to move into a fixer upper of a house. And he has an unrequited crush on the girl next door, Estelle. He’s come up with a list of goals for the year, six impossible things beginning with kissing Estelle and ending with being a better person than his father.

Six Impossible Things is a fun read. Dan is a witty, self-deprecating narrator, who starts out pretty bitter at the state of his life, yet really develops throughout the course of the story. There’s a scene near the end where his mom comments on how much he’s changed, and while he initially brushes it off with his sarcasm, it’s such an on point observation. It’s to the author’s credit than Dan’s growth is so subtly done that I almost didn’t realize it happening, and didn’t really appreciate how much he’s grown until now, when I’m writing this review and remembering how he was like at the beginning of the novel. Dan is far from a perfect boy — he’s pretty much a jerk to his mom in the beginning, and he straight-up spies on Estelle at some points — but he’s also sweet and lonely, and the kind of boy you want to hug and reassure that it will all work itself out somehow. His development feels real, and his challenges and emotions throughout – both positive and negative – feel real as well.

The book’s weakness is that, with the exception of Dan, the other characters are all pretty flat. Estelle is the standard quirky beautiful crush next door, Dan’s best friends are fairly typical snarky outsiders, and even the man who lives in Dan’s shed — a mysterious, cool older brother type — doesn’t end up being memorable. Dan’s mom is probably the most interesting secondary character, and it was amusing to see the her story arc progress with Dan being so completely clueless that he was blindsided by a revelation near the end. I especially loved the depiction of why her wedding cake business was doing so poorly — the reason is both hilarious and moving, and made me wish her story was more in the forefront.

Still, overall, this is a funny and endearing book. It’s easy to get caught up in Dan’s story, and it’s fun to see how the things that seem so impossible to him at the beginning of the tale turn out to be quite possible after all.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Off the Page, Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

23278280Off the Page by mother and daughter team Picoult and Van Leer, is a sequel to their earlier collaboration Between the Lines

If, like me, you haven’t read Between the Lines, here’s a quick overview (spoiler warning): shy and bookish Delilah falls in love with a prince, Oliver, in a fairy tale book. It turns out Oliver wants to escape the monotony of fairy tale life himself (he and the other characters have to act out the story each time someone opens the book). They track down the author of the fairy tale, who modelled the character of the prince on her own son Edgar, and by the end of the book, somehow manage to have Oliver and Edgar switch places.

Off the Page takes place a couple of months after. Delilah is thrilled to have her fairy tale prince as a real life boyfriend, until she realizes that the traits she finds so charming about him are also making him the most popular boy in school. The high school queen bee wants him for herself, and Delilah is beginning to wonder if bringing him into her world is worth having to share him with everyone else.

Other complications arise as well. The fairy tale begins sending Oliver messages to return home. Other real life and fairy tale characters accidentally switch places. And Edgar’s mother reveals something that may mean Edgar needs to return to the real world.

This is a fun, lighthearted read. It was entertaining to read about Oliver’s reactions to ordinary things in the real world, and it was easy to see why he was so immediately well-liked. Delilah was a bit more annoying. It seemed selfish of her to be jealous of Oliver’s social success, and her pouty jealousy over an on-stage kiss seemed petty. That being said, I do remember bouts of irrational insecurity as a teenager, so her responses are likely realistic.

What I loved the most was the relationship between Delilah’s best friend Jules and Edgar. They bond over zombies and oddball references, and while Jules’ prickliness could at times be over the top, I did find myself pulling for them even more than I was for Delilah and Oliver.

This is a great book for younger readers. I can imagine myself at ten swooning over the idea of a fairy tale prince coming to life and head over heels in love with me, and then getting all worked up about the circumstances that may keep us apart. The storytelling has a bit of a fairy tale feel as well — a straightforward, simple story line, beautifully illustrated, and featuring a flying dragon, a string of words taking physical form in the air, and a special star you can hold in the palm of your hand. The ending too has a nice, family friendly feel, with a son’s love for his mother being the driving force. There’s an almost Disney-like feel that sets this apart form the grittier, more realistic YA that are very popular these days.

It’s not a Jodi Picoult read by any means — if you’re a fan of her in-depth tearjerkers, this is more an escape from real life than a dive into it. Nor does it completely transport you into the idea of literature as magic — for that, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart is far more magical.

But it’s a nice read, a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. And if you happen to know a ten or eleven year old bookworm who is a true blue romantic, this would be a great gift.

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