Book Review: Strong Deaf by Lynn McElfresh

Jade is the only person in her family who can hear.  They are Deaf with a capital D.  Her older sister Marla gets to go to the all-deaf boarding school that her family is deeply involved in, but Jade has to go to a hearing school.  The two are different as night and day, and Jade feels left out of her sister’s world.  When the two end up on the same softball team all summer, they’re forced to really spend time together and start communicating.  What they discover about themselves and each other changes their perspectives.

A short, sweet novel aimed at middle grade readers, McElfresh’s novel tries to make Deaf culture accessible for the outsider.  In some ways, she succeeds at creating a loving family with very different children who both just want to be accepted.  McElfresh uses dual perspectives to narrate the book, and each sister has a chance to get her say.  It moves quickly and will work for reluctant readers, because each chapter is short.

However, I couldn’t help but find myself uncomfortable with how McElfresh chose to translate Marla’s chapters.  Marla uses ASL to communicate, and as a result, her narration uses short, choppy sentences that read more like “dumbed down” English than anything.  While I understand that ASL doesn’t translate perfectly to standard written English, it is a language of its own, and this felt like a weird disservice to the characters and the readers.  ASL flows beautifully when it’s being signed, and there’s no reason to do a literal translation in a book like this, especially with no explanation or rationale as to why.

McElfresh is hearing but has a deaf sister.  She wrote the book to explore what it was like for two sisters who communicate differently, and there’s some nice stuff here.  I just couldn’t get past how squirmy I felt about the ASL translation.

It might find an audience of young readers interested in Deaf culture.

Strong Deaf by Lynn McElfresh. Namelos: 2012. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

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