My daughter wears hearing aids, which has shone a light for me on how difficult it is to find mainstream books whose main characters are Deaf or hard of hearing. There’s El Deafo, which is great, but not a lot else either in picture books (the only one I could find when she was in first grade was told from the point of view of the family dog rather than the child) or in middle grade. So I was excited to see these two recent books starring children with hearing loss.
You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino. Scholastic, 2018.
When Jilly’s new baby sister, Emma, is born with hearing loss, she naturally reaches out to her crush on the boards for her favorite book series, the Magically Mysterious Vidalia trilogy. “Profoundinoakland” identifies as Deaf, but to Jilly’s surprise, doesn’t enjoy being treated as Jilly’s personal guide to the world of hearing loss. Even so, Jilly and Derek manage to meet and become friends in real life, despite several missteps on Jilly’s part. Derek is African-American, as is Jilly’s Aunt Joanne’s wife, Aunt Alicia, whom Jilly adores. Just from the cover and title, I was expecting Jilly to learn a lot about hearing loss. But as the book opens with a Black kid being shot on TV, it’s clear from early on that it’s going to be dealing with racism, and how white and hearing people can be effective allies for people of color and those with hearing loss.
With so many big issues like this packed into a book, I always worry that the characters will feel like puppets in service to the message. Happily, Jilly and her family and Derek all felt like real people, with issues coinciding messily as they would in real life. Things like Jilly’s realizing that she has a crush, an audiologist who’s prejudiced against sign language, the running word games Jilly’s best friend plays with Jilly’s dad, and the importance Jilly places on being able to teach her baby sister how to make a PB&J the correct Jilly way all made Jilly someone I was happy to get to know, faults and all. Yes, I did cry. And now I really, really need to go back and read Gino’s first book, George.
The Collectors by Jacqueline West. HarperCollins, 2018.
Van has always felt a little bit isolated. His hearing loss makes it difficult to hear people who aren’t looking at him when they talk, and he’s grown up moving frequently because of living with his opera singer mother, who regularly tours famous opera houses. Then, a birthday party for a boy he barely knows, Peter, turns strange. He sees the smoke from the birthday candle wafting up and being collected by a strange girl with eyes like mossy pennies and her squirrel. The mystery of who they are and what they’re doing leads Van down the path to a secret world, filled with danger and moral dilemmas…
Jacqueline West won the 2010 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Cybils Award for the first book of her Books of Elsewhere series, The Shadows. This book, while it had some lovely descriptions of the magical world, felt solid but not outstanding to me as far as the magic goes. It shines, though, in its depiction of Van and his hearing loss – the difficulty in interacting with people who don’t get it, the relief of being able to take them out at the end of the day and retreat to his own world. Though the author doesn’t have hearing loss herself, she credits a whole class of DHH children for helping her get the experience right, and it really shows. (She does have opera experience, though!) That in itself lifted this book out of the ordinary and makes it one I’d recommend.
Other books I’ve read about kids with hearing loss: