Andrea Shettle reviews FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB

Andrea ShettleAndrea Shettle, a program manager at the U.S. International Council on Disabilities (USICD), is passionate about disability rights both domestically and internationally. At USICD, she coordinates an internship program for students and recent graduates who aspire to careers in international development. She also assists with the national campaign for U.S. ratification of the international disability treaty, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In her free time, she reads voraciously. She blogs (and reblogs from others) about disability rights, the CRPD, and disability representation in books and other media. She published a fantasy novel in 1990, Flute Song Magic, which is out of print. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cover for FIVE FLAVORS OF DEAFOn the rare occasions that I stumble across a book featuring a disabled character while browsing, I gravitate to it. But I also feel afraid. Afraid to invest my hope in finding characters I like only to feel betrayed—again—to find that the character most like me is just there as a prop for another character’s personal growth.  Afraid to feel betrayed—again—by an author only interested in using disability as a metaphor for “broken” or “twisted” spirits.  As if our bodies belonged to them to use as metaphor.  As if either our bodies or our spirits were automatically broken or twisted just because we are people with disabilities.

If you understand how badly disabled readers need to meet ourselves in a book, and if you also understand how often we’ve been betrayed, then perhaps you’ll understand the mingled excitement and trepidation with which I approached the task of reading Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John. The protagonist, Piper Vaughan, is a young deaf woman finishing her last year of high school. She’s smart, academically successful, mainstreamed at a public high school, a wicked good chess player, and interested in attending Gallaudet University in part so she can finally be among other deaf signers like her.  In these ways (apart from the chess) she is like me if you subtract a quarter century from my age.

In the story, Piper struggles to manage a new high school hard rock band called “Dumb”. Struggles, not because she is deaf, but because the band is comprised of members who do not always get along well. In the midst of all the drama involving “her” band, Piper also is figuring out how she wants to relate to her parents and her two siblings.  The dynamics of how this plays out in the story is much influenced by Piper being deaf and her family hearing.  But the dynamics are also much influenced by Piper being an ordinary adolescent figuring out who she wants to be as she emerges into adulthood.

If you’re just reading this review to know if there is a deaf/Deaf reader who is comfortable recommending this book as being largely free of stereotypes and other problematic representation, then here’s my short answer: Yes. Despite some flaws, it is clear the author did his research. I enjoyed this book and recommend it.

That’s the short answer. If you want analysis, this is where I get into that.

Let’s start with technical accuracy in portraying deafness. When dealing with things other than music, Antony John is pretty consistent in how he portrays Piper’s ability—and lack of ability—to hear the sounds around her. This is what makes it frustrating that he robs her of all ability to appreciate the music (or, as is often the case for this group of novice musicians, the chaotic noise) that the band, “Dumb”, produces.

Piper can hear well enough that her hearing aids significantly boost her ability to lip read others, at least in quiet situations where there aren’t other sounds to compete for attention. There is even one scene where she is able to catch a few words that another character speaks directly into her hearing aid even though she cannot see her face. Piper hears better than I do—just like plenty of real-life moderately deaf or hard of hearing people.  Although I hear some loud, low pitched sounds and some limited speech, there’s nothing “moderate” about my hearing loss.

All this being the case, when Piper is standing close enough, she should be able to hear the sound of Josh singing even if she still misses what the words are.  She should be able to hear Finn demonstrating a chord on his guitar even if she cannot reliably distinguish one chord from another or whether each chord sounds the way it should.  And she also should be able to hear the band well enough to decide if she likes their music or not.  In my case, I do hear music well enough—if well amplified—to know what I like and don’t like.  And Dumb is never stingy with their amplification.  Piper, who hears more than me, should be able to hear it also.

I think Antony John may have meant to amuse his hearing readers with the apparent “irony” of a deaf girl managing a band she cannot hear. Unfortunately he is apparently so enamored by this concept that he has allowed it to override the overall accuracy he otherwise achieved so well. If I had the power to direct a re-write, I would encourage him to consider either making her ability to hear and enjoy music more consistent for someone with a “moderately severe” hearing loss, or else making her more profoundly deaf (though the latter would mean making her less of a champion lip reader).  I also would encourage him to consider the fact that there are many deaf people who love music even if they cannot hear it at all.  They love the sensation of vibrations from a strong beat thrumming through their bodies, which can work well for hard rock and other loud, rhythmic music.  And Anthony John does, in fact, sometimes describe Piper picking up the vibrations of the music in her body.  So why should Piper be so alienated from the music that her band produces?

Despite this and some other minor issues, Antony John’s depiction of what it can be like to be deaf is still mostly on target. There are many little things he gets right, like Piper needing to remove her hearing aids before a hair stylist starts to wash her hair, or the fact that it’s easier to lip read people when they’re directly across the table from you than it is if they were next to you.

Although the author does fall for the tiresome trope of the champion deaf lip reader, Piper’s lip reading abilities are nevertheless largely consistent with her level of hearing loss. I also count in his favor that Antony John manage to show that lip reading isn’t an easy task even for a champion like Piper. She misses a homework assignment when the teacher’s announcement competes with the sounds of other students preparing to leave class.  She has trouble understanding speech in the poor acoustic environment of the girl’s bathroom.  It comes clearly that even a stellar lip reader is still working their butt off to make it work.  It is clear why Piper prefers to use sign language when the opportunity is available.

Other things I like: Antony John avoids the trope of a single disabled character alienated from the disability community. Although she is apparently the only deaf student at her school, Piper does have a deaf friend who, like her, feels most comfortable signing. Granted, this is a friend who has moved away, which means Piper can only chat with her via computer.  But it’s nice to see validation of the fact that many people with disabilities, particularly signing culturally Deaf people, have connections to others who share their disability and highly value these connections.

Antony John’s depiction of how hearing people react to Piper’s deafness is also true to life. Some, like Ed, seem comfortable with whom she is and adapt easily to her communication needs. A few other characters are obnoxious jerks who patronize Piper and underestimate her capabilities.  And many characters are trying to do the right thing—at least sometimes—but are still somewhat clueless.  This mix of reactions can be tricky to get right in fiction.  I’ve seen other efforts that either have their disabled characters living in an unrealistically inclusive utopia, or else there might be one scene with clumsily blatant prejudice that does little to give a sense for the pervasiveness of micro-aggressions toward deaf people in daily life.  Antony John steers the balance between these extremes well.

I also like the balance Antony John strikes between showing both Piper’s limitations as a deaf manager of a rock band and the strengths she is able to use to evade these limitations. She cannot, for example, realize without being told that the band only knows how to play songs that use a specific sequence of three chords. But she recruits her brother, Finn, and her friend, Ed, to help identify these and other weaknesses she cannot assess on her own.  Meanwhile, Piper discovers a knack for marketing the band and negotiating deals.  She also is able to “read” the dysfunctional relationships among the band members through sharp-eyed observation of facial expressions and body language, even in contexts where she cannot understand everything they say.  She sometimes stumbles in managing these relationships—as you would expect from a young, inexperienced adult.  But she learns from her mistakes.

Here, let’s shift gears to look at other kinds of diversity.  The cast of Five Flavors is almost exclusively white, cis, and straight with the story set in a “predominantly white, middle-class suburb of Seattle”.  There is only one important character, described as having dark skin, whose mother is African American. There is one other major character, Ed, whose last name is Chen.  Otherwise, there is little racial or ethnic diversity, even among minor characters.  It seems we are meant to read characters as white unless told otherwise.

Also, apart from Piper’s family temporary money issues, most characters seem to be either middle class or wealthy. Poverty is only addressed when the characters visit the old homes of rock stars. Antony John’s language often becomes lurid in passages that talk about poverty.  I usually found myself feeling uncomfortable while reading these passages.  They made me wonder if the way he writes about poverty is what some poor people have meant when describing the sensation of having their stories presented to the world as a form of “poverty porn.”  Meaning, packaged to elicit emotional responses from people who haven’t experienced poverty without consideration for how poor people feel about their own experiences or about the presentation of their stories.

I think Antony John means for his descriptions of the former poverty of rock stars to elevate the importance of rock music for readers.  But if so, these don’t have that effect for me.  There were other scenes, in which characters talk about the personal meaning of certain pieces of music to them or in which characters react to the music they are listening to, that I felt were much more effective.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed getting to know Piper through this book and watching her grow as a problem solver, as a rock band manager, as a sister and daughter and friend.  Although this book was weak in other areas of diversity, I feel that Antony John did a solid job of handling a deaf protagonist and hope he will consider writing more novels with disabled characters in the future—perhaps including a sequel to Five Flavors of Dumb.

Cece Bell: Chapter 9 of EL DEAFO Almost Wasn’t–Here’s Why

Cece BellCece Bell lives in an old church with her husband, author Tom Angleberger, and she works in a new-ish barn (by herself). She has written and illustrated several books for children, including the Geisel Honor book Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover; some of her other works include Itty Bitty, Bee-Wigged, the Sock Monkey series, and the illustrations for Crankee Doodle (written by Tom). She still wears behind-the-ear hearing aids, and wishes that people in restaurant settings would come equipped with closed-captioning!

I’m very excited about the release of my graphic novel memoir, El Deafo. I’m also kind of nervous about it. I worry about what other deaf people will think of the book. Here’s one of the reasons why:

I lost my hearing to meningitis when I was four and a half years old. I was lucky to have a little bit of time as a hearing person to acquire some language, because as soon as I lost my hearing, communication with my family and friends became really, really tricky.

The summer after everything changed, my parents enrolled me in a kindergarten class for deaf kids, and that decision became the basis for how I dealt with—and still deal with—my deafness. In the class, we were taught how to lip-read. I describe this in the book. However, something that I don’t talk about directly is that our teacher did not teach us any sign language. At all. Zero. It was 1975, and whether it was the thinking of the time or the particular reasoning of that school system (or both), lip-reading was in, and sign language was out.


But lip-reading is not always easy. Success in lip-reading depends on so many factors: who is talking, how familiar you are with the person talking, where the person is talking, how animated the person is while talking, the presence or absence of background noise and distractions and light, and on and on. Writing El Deafo made me realize that I wish I had learned sign language when I was in kindergarten, before I became so self-conscious about everything to do with my deafness. Perhaps learning both lip-reading and sign language would have helped me and my classmates communicate more comfortably than we could with lip-reading alone. But after kindergarten, I was good enough at lip-reading to go to school with hearing kids, and suddenly I was the only deaf kid in my class. No way was I going to do anything that made me different—it was bad enough that I looked different because of my enormous hearing aid. If I was using sign language, everyone would have stared at me even more, right? Oh, such faulty reasoning, especially since I was probably already getting stares. So I never learned how to sign, not even when my well-intentioned mother gave me an opportunity to do so. Over the years, I got better and better at lip-reading, and felt less and less inclined to learn to sign.


The toughest chapter to write in El Deafo, by far, was the chapter in which I reject sign language. I initially hesitated to write it because I didn’t want to admit to the world, and in particular other deaf people, just how much I really and truly hated sign language when I was a kid. It is a terrible and unsettling thing to admit, but ultimately I decided to include my sign language story because I needed to be truthful to my unique experience of deafness. The book would not be complete without it.


I sincerely hope that this chapter adequately explains the reasons for my mixed-up feelings about sign language, even if those reasons were irrational—and I also hope that I accurately portray just how bratty I was about it. It’s all true, including the last pages of the chapter, in which I witness two adults arguing in sign language. They weren’t interpreting a song in sign language like we sometimes did in music class (corny!), or following me around spelling my name with their hands the way some of my classmates did (annoying!). They were communicating. I was more than impressed, I was jealous. But not enough to actually do something about it. I was still too worried about being “different” from my hearing classmates.


The irony of all of this is that my absolute favorite people to talk to—because they are easy to understand—are the animated folks who make grand gestures when they speak, who “talk with their hands.” Isn’t talking with your hands what sign language really is, after all?

So, to all the deaf kids and the deaf adults who use sign language and who might read El Deafo: please know that I have nothing but respect and admiration for sign language and for those who use it. I sincerely hope that you will not be offended by the sign language chapter in the book. And I also hope that if we meet, you might teach me a bit.


El Deafo coverGoing to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.

The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.

Coming September 2, 2014, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS.

Thanks so much for sharing, Cece!

Amulet Books has generously donated an ARC of El Deafo be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Juana F.: Growing Up Deaf in the Public School System

Juana F.Somewhere in Southern California, Juana grew up in a home filled with books. In high school, her father would bring home “heavy” books about the political climate in Central America (he was a university professor). Her childhood was spent playing outdoors and reading in her bedroom, where she spent a large chunk of her time and where she felt most comfortable. A proofreader and copy editor by trade, Juana can annoy people with her incessant questions. She still dreams of following in the footsteps of the inimitable Studs Terkel.

Imagine being the only deaf member in your family. How do you find a way to communicate if no one knows sign language? In my case, I learned how to speak and lip read. From the time of my diagnosis, at age four, this was my way of adapting to the world at large, and especially at home. But life at home was much easier than being at school.

After being mainstreamed in fourth grade, I became isolated. I knew I wasn’t like the other kids so I tried my darndest to blend in. It wasn’t easy making friends, but I befriended Doug, who was really sweet and patient when communicating with me. When he smiled and laughed at me, I couldn’t see his eyes, and that made me laugh. When I broke my left wrist from playing on the rings (holy hell, that HURT LIKE FUCK), I got a kick out of striking Doug on the arm with my cast. I might not have really understood him but that didn’t seem to matter.

Doug’s kindness was important to me because I was bullied relentlessly by the other deaf students. Even though I was able to communicate with them, it wasn’t good enough. If you think they accepted me as one of their own, you’re wrong. In fact, they were even worse bullies than the hearing kids. One day, they’d pretend to be my friend and throw around my shoulders the warmth blanket of their friendship and the next day, they’d shun me, signing the word “hate,” all behind the teacher’s back so she never knew what was going on. It didn’t occur to me to talk to the teacher about it.

By junior high school, I became depressed. I so dreaded going to school that I would vomit every morning. It became so that my parents became concerned. Mama, being a kindergarten teacher, would sit with me in the morning and write down goals for the day, like “Today, I will make a new friend” written out on a large index card. But my depression continued, unabated. Because I feared the large crowds outside during lunchtime and didn’t feel safe being alone, I would eat lunch in the restroom (yes, gross) and then stay in the library until the bell rang.

I didn’t know it at the time but I suffered from communication fatigue. Ian Noon’s words almost made me weep; I always felt guilty because I thought my weariness was because I wasn’t trying my best to earn good grades (I was an average student overall but in literature and the social sciences, I was well above average) and because I was lazy. The thought of being lazy just made me feel even guiltier. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I could finally understand that from the time of my diagnosis, my education was not going to be “complete,” because I did not have the full access I needed. It was as if intensive speech therapy and itinerant teachers were more important than having a sign language interpreter in my classes. The toughest work, of understanding and making sense of the overload of information, was all up to me to decipher.  

As Mr. Noon says, “We can change the world. But we might need a nap and a cuppa tea every once in a while, so don’t judge us.”

Cristina Hartmann: Tropes About People With Hearing Loss

Cristina HartmannCristina Hartmann is a writer (also publishes sci-fi works under the pen name Victoria Halley) who likes to jump out of planes and read books (not at the same time). Cristina has a weakness for YA books featuring female protagonists who can wield a sword like nobody’s business. When she’s not writing, jumping out of planes, or reading, Cristina loves cooking, eating, and playing with fuzzy creatures. (Alas, she’s not a fish person.)

Predictably, many of the tropes relating to D/deaf and hard of hearing characters deal with communication methods and degree of hearing loss. Most, if not all, of these tropes have to do with people’s assumptions and wishful thinking about hearing loss.

All D/deaf and hard of hearing people are flawless lip-readers.

Ah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Studies have shown that even the best lip-readers can only understand approximately 33% of a spoken conversation by lip-reading alone. Lip-reading isn’t a magical solution for people with hearing loss. At best, it’s a slightly helpful technique.

I’ve read and seen this trope all too often in books, movies, and television. When I was eleven, I read this YA mystery about a deaf girl detective who could lip-read perfectly from 100 yards away. In fact, her lip-reading skills helped her crack a murder mystery she read the criminals’ lips. I admit it, I rolled my eyes a little.

This trope is a lazy workaround for a character’s hearing loss. If a character is an expert lip-reader, then the writer doesn’t need to deal with the realities of communication briers. This result doesn’t just give people the wrong impression about D/deaf and hard of hearing characters, but it causes writers to miss some potentially great storytelling opportunities.

All D/deaf people use sign language.

This trope may seem to contradict the previous one, but it doesn’t. I suspect that there is an assumption that one is an amazing lip-reader and a fluent signer.

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people know American Sign Language (ASL), let alone are fluent. There is a large array of communication methods used by people with hearing loss: ASL, Signed Exact English (SEE), Simultaneous Communication (SimCom), speech, cued speech, et cetera. The person’s choice of communication method is a very individual and personal one.

It’s not fair for anyone to assume that they  know what a person’s communication method is just because they have a hearing loss. Maybe they sign, maybe they don’t. This trope prevents people from thinking more critically andasking the person what communication method they prefer. These assumptions can lead to disastrous results in real life. (One of my friends had a sign language interpreter provided for her, but she didn’t know ASL.)

On a related note, not all deaf people (or all signers) are active members of the Deaf Community. Many are, but many aren’t as well. Once again, it’s a highly individual decision.

All D/deaf people are mute.

This trope is slowly disappearing, but it rears its ugly head occasionally.

One of the most famous deaf-mute characters of modern literature is Nick Andros from Stephen King’s The Stand. (Psst. He also fits the first trope. He’s a master lip-reader.) There are many more examples, particularly in older literature.

The problem? Pathological deaf-mutism is extremely rare. Some D/deaf and hard of hearing people choose not to speak vocally, but their silence doesn’t mean that they’re mute.

All D/deaf people are completely deaf.

Again, “stone deafness” isn’t common. It’s quite rare for someone to be completely deaf. Even people who are diagnosed as profoundly deaf have some hearing. (Funnily enough, I’m one of the extremely rare individuals who iscompletely deaf, but I’m the exception, not the rule.)

The importance of tropes and why we should care.

Even though movies, books, and television shows are…well, fictional, they shape people’s perceptions.

Tropes affect people’s assumptions about D/deaf and hard of hearing people. People expect them to be world-class lip-readers, stone deaf, and fluent signers. When people meet someone who doesn’t meet all these criteria, they’ll be confused and frustrated. “But I thought you’d be able to lip-read me!” they think. “They’re just not trying hard enough.” This can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings and friction.

These tropes don’t just affect the perceptions of people without a hearing loss. The pressure to be expert lip-readers can frustrate D/deaf and hard of hearing people. Even today, I feel a little guilty when I tell people, “No, I can’t lip-read everything you say,” and seeing the disappointment in their eyes.

D/deaf and hard of hearing people are amazingly diverse in their backgrounds, communication methodologies, and degree of hearing loss. If the media showed the diversity of the D/deaf and hard of hearing people, maybe a little bell would go off in someone’s head and they would realize, “They’re not all the same!”

The world’s a better place when we see all different ways of living life in fiction and real life.

Cover for THE SECRET VALUE OF ZEROIn The Secret Value of Zero, a YA sci-fi dystopia, people are ranked at age 1 according to intelligence and ability. Because of her deafness, Meke is relegated to the lowest rank of the so-called “defectives”: Zero. Prosperon, a nation led by scientists and doctors, only consider Zeroes useful as scientific experiments. When an experiment bestows Meke with unexpected powers, she gets swept up in an underground revolution. When she discovers that the revolutionaries only want to exploit her genetic secrets, Meke must decide if she will fight back or be a good girl. She decides to fight back, armed with a poleaxe.

The Secret Value of Zero focuses on Meke’s understanding of her self-worth in a society that considers her worthless. Along the way, she must face resistance from well-meaning adults, and fighting with people who are more “talented” than she is. There’s also some fun swordplay and romance thrown in!

You can find The Secret Value of Zero on Amazon: