Recommended Reading: The Words in My Hands by Asphyxia

The Words in My HandsThe Words in My Hands by Asphyxia
Summary: Part coming of age, part call to action, this #ownvoices novel about a Deaf teenager is an exploration of what it means to belong. Set in an ominously prescient near future, this is the story of Piper. Sixteen, smart, artistic, and rebellious; she’s struggling to conform to what her mom wants–for her to be ‘normal, ‘ to pass as hearing, and get a good job. But in a time of food scarcity, environmental collapse, and political corruption, Piper has other things on her mind–like survival. Deaf since the age of three, Piper has always been told that she needs to compensate in a world that puts those who can hear above everyone else. But when she meets Marley, a whole new world opens up–one where Deafness is something to celebrate rather than hide, and where resilience and hope are created by taking action, building a community, and believing in something better.

Set in Australia a few decades into the future, this compelling novel presents a world where most of the population is dependent on Organicore, a food substitute that has improved nutrition and eradicated cancer and other diseases, but at the cost of estranging the population from so-called “wild food” – and possibly introducing other health problems. In the midst of this we meet Piper, a deaf teen who has grown up as an oral deaf person, relying on hearing aids and speechreading to get by. When the economy tanks and there are shortages of everything – including Organicore – Piper and her mother rent out their house and move into a tiny guesthouse, conserving the little power that is left to them. Piper meets a handsome CODA (child of deaf adult) named Marley and through him is introduced to Auslan (Australian Sign Language) for the first time. As she falls for Marley, she meets his Deaf mother and learns about growing things in the earth and growing a sense of identity and language in her soul. Piper lives out what Deaf educator Gina Oliva calls the “MET DEAF WOW” moment that so many orally educated deaf young adults experience. (… ) She begins to understand that she is not alone and there is a whole community of people like her, with deep connections and ease of communication. As she becomes more engaged in their world, her confidence grows and she joins the wild food revolution, converting the public space on her street into a thriving community garden. Interspersed with Piper’s drawings, the text pulls the reader in from the first page. Unlike many books with deaf (and Deaf) characters, The Words in My Hands never glosses over the relentlessness of the struggle for communication in the hearing world, and how much of that burden usually falls on Piper. When Piper is forced to rely on speechreading, the reader is shown the nonsense that she gets from the other person’s lips and sees in real time the work she has to do into order to construct meaning. The readers also gets to experience the blossoming of communication alongside Piper as she learns Auslan and comes into her own Deaf identity. An extraordinary book on many levels.

Recommended Reading: SHOW ME A SIGN by Ann Clare LeZotte

I just finished reading an Advance Reader Copy of Show Me a Sign by Deaf author Ann Clare LeZotte, and I couldn’t wait to tell the world about it! The book comes out March 3, 2020 from Scholastic, but you can preorder it from IndieBound, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble. More information and my complete gushing below!

Show Me a SignShow Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Summary: Mary Lambert has always felt safe and protected on her beloved island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her great-grandfather was an early English settler and the first deaf islander. Now, over a hundred years later, many people there – including Mary – are deaf, and nearly everyone can communicate in sign language. Mary has never felt isolated. She is proud of her lineage. But recent events have delivered winds of change. Mary’s brother died, leaving her family shattered. Tensions over land disputes are mounting between English settlers and the Wampanoag people. And a cunning young scientist has arrived, hoping to discover the origin of the island’s prevalent deafness. His maniacal drive to find answers soon renders Mary a “live specimen” in a cruel experiment. Her struggle to save herself is at the core of this penetrating and poignant novel that probes our perceptions of ability and disability.

The history of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language has fascinated me ever since I first devoured Nora Groce’s seminal ethnography Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Harvard University Press). Not only was MVSL one of the building blocks of American Sign Language, but the history of Martha’s Vineyard showed a wonderful example of what can happen when everyone has equal access to communication.

Ann Clare LeZotte brings the island community to life, and – no doubt because she is a Deaf ASL user herself – sidesteps the awkwardness that hearing authors often bring to showing signed interactions on the page. The result is a story that flows as naturally as the signs off the hands of deaf and hearing islanders alike – a story of a tight-knit community where everyone is valued, and the intrusion of the outside hearing world that only sees deaf islanders as specimens to study. LeZotte managed to incorporate lots of historical information – about the history of the island, about the early history of deaf education in America, about sign languages themselves – without ever letting the facts overwhelm the story and characters. What impressed me most, though, was the way the author wove in marginalized voices that, in most historical fiction like this, would have been overlooked – the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, the black freedmen on the island, the fact that the early schools for the deaf were segregated. This too, is done with a deft touch, as protagonist Mary reckons with the way the larger hearing world views her and her community, and learns how her own people have marginalized others. Anyone who dismisses this book as “niche” is missing out – in fact, it’s a big-hearted adventure and family story that will provoke reflections and discussions about intersectionality from writers and readers alike.

As an ASL interpreter, librarian, and book reviewer, I have reviewed a LOT of books about ASL and Deaf Culture over the years. There have been a lot of “well, at least now there’s a book on this topic….better than nothing, I guess.” So to have this book to recommend, that’s THIS good, AND by a Deaf author…all I can say is:

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

EL DEAFO by Cece Bell named a 2015 Newbery Honor Book!

el deafoCongratulations to Cece Bell, whose graphic novel memoir of growing up deaf, El Deafo (Amulet Books, 2014) has been chosen as a 2015 Honor Book by the John Newbery Medal Committee of the Association of Library Service to Children!

To find out more about this charming book for middle-graders, click here to read my earlier review of El Deafo.


Review: EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

el deafoEl Deafo by Cece Bell.  New York: Amulet Books, 2014.

Cece Bell uses the graphic novel format for her memoir of growing up deaf in a hearing family, with an appealing anthropomorphized rabbits standing in for people .  Born hearing, Cece became deaf after a bout of spinal meningitis at age four.  She traces her various adventures with hearing aids, using clever visual techniques to show the difficulties of speechreading and the many miscommunications that can occur.  In first grade, rabbit-Cece receives a new hearing aid called the Phonic Ear, which both embarrasses her with its size and impresses her with its powerful capabilities – when her teacher wears the microphone that goes with it, she can hear what the teacher is doing all over the school , even in the bathroom!  But she struggles to navigate friendships with hearing children – er, rabbits – when she finds herself bouncing between extremes of bossy best friends who want to run her life and friends who are so afraid that they will hurt her that they drift away.  And gradually, she creates her alter-ego, El Deafo, her internal superhero who fights the demons of growing up using the power of the rosette on her undershirt and a giant dose of creativity and positive thinking.  Though the author came late to American Sign Language, she recognizes that her story of growing up as a successful oral deaf child is not a common one, and she shares important background information about deafness and ASL in her author’s note.  Engaging and visually appealing, this is a great read for middle-graders – or for anyone!

Children’s Novels About ASL and Deafness

Deaf Child Crossing by Marlee Matlin. (Simon and Schuster, 2002)

When Cindy, who is hearing, moves in down the street from Megan, who is deaf, the nine-year-olds quickly become best friends. Megan wears hearing aids and lip-reads, but the girls become even closer as Cindy begins to learn sign language. Problems crop up when her attempts to be helpful offend Megan’s sense of independence, and things get even worse at summer camp, where they meet another deaf girl, Lizzie.

Nobody’s Perfect by Marlee Matlin. (Simon and Schuster, 2002)

Megan can’t wait for her positively purple birthday party, but her perfect plans get derailed when a new girl, Alexis, joins her class and rebuffs Megan’s invitation and brushes off all of Megan’s attempts to be friendly.  When Megan teaches Alexis’s autistic brother some basic sign language, it opens up communication with both him and Alexis.

Leading Ladies by Marlee Matlin. (Simon and Schuster, 2007)

Rivalries abound when Megan’s fourth-grade class puts on a production of “The Wizard of Oz” and she has her heart set on playing Dorothy…but so does her friend Lizzie.

Gaps in Stone Walls by John Neufeld. (Athenuem, 1996)

In the late 19th century, hereditary deafness affected at least 1/5 of the population of Chilmark, a town on Martha’s Vineyard. Among this group is Merry Skiffe, an artistic 12-year-old whose peaceful life unravels when wealthy miser Ned Nickerson is murdered on a dark road one Saturday night and Merry finds herself among the four residents of Chilmark who have no alibi.

Apple is my Sign by Mary Riskind. (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)

A 10-year-old boy returns to his parents’ apple farm for the holidays after his first term at a school for the deaf in Philadelphia.