Read the Signs: Middle Grade Fiction Centering the Deaf Experience

Despite the rich history of stories within the D/deaf, Hard of Hearing, or Deaf-Blind community, finding #OwnVoices books, especially for children and teens, remains a challenge. Hopefully this list will provide a starting point and serve as a call to action for more books about Deaf kids.

Over the past several years, efforts to diversify library collections and provide resources that reflect the authentic experiences of individuals from historically marginalized groups have resulted in prioritizing #OwnVoices literature. But readers seeking titles grounded in a firsthand D/deaf, Hard of Hearing, or Deaf-Blind (DHHDB) perspective are unlikely to find many offerings. Why aren’t we, the DHHDB community, writing our own stories? The answer is complicated. American Sign Language (ASL) has a rich tradition of storytelling, but it’s a visual language with no written equivalent. Additionally, as a result of a long history of discrimination against DHHDB individuals, stigma around hearing loss, and harmful and inadequate educational policies, including the prevalence of oralism and the practice of forbidding sign language in many schools for decades, some DHHDB people have low English proficiency. Still, our imaginations soar. Simply do an Internet search for “Deaf poetry” to experience the breadth and artistry of DHHDB creative storytelling.

Despite the rich history of stories within the DHHDB community, finding #OwnVoices books, especially for children and teens, remains a challenge. The following middle grade selections are mostly written by hearing authors, and several are backlist titles. Though all of these books feature positive and authentic characters, few are by people of color or take an intersectional perspective, even though auditory disabilities exist in every population. We hope this list provides a starting point for library collections and serves as a call to action for the publication of more books about Deaf kids, especially those written and illustrated by #OwnVoices creators. Hopefully, with the success of these titles and the widespread popularity of ASL, we can still make an impact on our own terms.

A note on terminology: Deaf with a capital “D” identifies an individual as culturally deaf; deaf with a lowercase “d” simply denotes an audiological condition. For more information on Deaf culture and terminology, visit the National Association of the Deaf.
 

ALEXANDER, Sally Hobart. She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer. HMH/Clarion. 2008. ISBN 9780618852994.
Gr 5-7–At two years old, Laura Bridgman lost her senses of sight, hearing, smell, and taste. She later attended the country’s first school for the blind. Before Helen Keller, Bridgman provided evidence that the Deaf-Blind are intelligent and educable. The back matter by Alexander, who is blind and Hard of Hearing, also discusses medical and technological advances.

BELL, Cece. El Deafo. illus. by author. Abrams. 2014. ISBN 9781419712173.
Gr 3-7–This Newbery Honor–winning graphic novel about the author’s early experiences with deafness, a bulky hearing aid, and navigating friendship contains hilarious passages on the perils of lip-reading and sleepovers. Cece’s “superpower” makes her relatable to all readers and a hero to deaf kids with assistive hearing devices. A great choice for reluctant and delayed readers as well.

GINO, Alex. You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! Scholastic. 2018. ISBN 9780545956246.
Gr 3-7–When Jilly’s baby sister Emma is born deaf, Jilly grows closer to her online friend Derek, who is Deaf and black. The novel addresses Black Lives Matter and Deaf culture issues, with white, hearing Jilly stumbling as she struggles to understand her privilege and attendant responsibilities; her willingness to learn will endear her to readers. Gino thoughtfully finds the necessary balance in the debate over cochlear implants.

GORDON, Jean M., ed. The Gallaudet Children’s Dictionary of American Sign Language. Gallaudet. 2014. ISBN 9781563686313.
Gr K-4–ASL is the language used by members of the American Deaf community. When teaching kids, it’s important to use vetted resources from inside the community. More than 1,000 sign drawings, colorful illustrations, tips on navigating Deaf culture, and a DVD featuring native signers make this an essential reference book.


 

KELLY, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 2017. ISBN 978062414151.
Gr 3-7–“If she was deaf, how come she could talk? Even if it sounded like her mouth was full of marbles.” That’s the bully Chet talking about Valencia, whose life fatefully intersects with other middle graders on a summer day in Kelly’s Newbery Medal–winning novel. Like many deaf and Hard of Hearing kids, Valencia doesn’t know sign language and wears hearing aids, which are rendered useless with loud background noise. Her self-confidence and intrepid spirit will have young readers cheering her on.

KELLY, Lynne. Song for a Whale. Delacorte. 2019. ISBN 9781524770235.
Gr 3-7–Iris is a stellar Deaf character who realistically navigates a world where her intelligence isn’t recognized at school or home. Her attempts to reach Blue 55, a whale who cannot communicate with its own species, reflect her profound loneliness. A rare book where Deaf family and friends sign together.

MARTIN, Kentrell. Kasey’s First Day of Basketball. Shelley’s Adventures. 2016. ISBN 9780985184551.
Gr 2-5–Kasey worries about what others will think of his hearing aid. He takes it off during the first day of basketball practice and quickly realizes his mistake. This is a lighthearted story of self-acceptance about a black Deaf boy. Readers also learn 10 signs and some basketball trivia.

SELZNICK, Brian. Wonderstruck. illus. by author. Scholastic. 2011. ISBN 9780545027892.
Gr 4-6–This Schneider Family Book Award–winning tour de force presents the lives of two deaf children told 50 years apart—one story told primarily in illustrations and the other mostly with words. It’s a singular attempt to chart Deaf history in America, featuring Selznick’s exquisite artwork. The film adaptation, starring Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, is an excellent companion to the book.

WOODSON, Jacqueline. Feathers. Puffin. 2010. ISBN 9780142415502.
Gr 5-7 –When a white kid nicknamed “The Jesus Boy” comes to Frannie’s majority-black middle school, their growing friendship makes her question her faith and see things in a new light, including her relationship with her older brother Sean, who is Deaf. The book illustrates how a loving family creatively adapts to one member’s deafness.


Ann Clare LeZotte works for the Alachua County (FL) Library District, with a focus on intergenerational ASL literacy and inclusive youth programming. Her middle grade novel, Show Me a Sign, will be published by Scholastic in March.

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