Spotlight image: Debut author Anna Sortino
Happy Deaf Awareness Month! I’m Kerry O’Malley Cerra, and I’m here with Anna Sortino to help you celebrate September with books representing d/Deaf and hard of hearing experiences. We’re calling this Five in Five (x2). Typically, my Five in Five features five author-y or fun questions that should take you, the reader, only five minutes to read. But we’re upping the fun and multiplying it by two since we’re each asking the other questions.
We’re both deaf, so making sure our books’ characters are portrayed authentically is a priority for us. It’s imperative to note that there are so many ways to be d/Deaf or hard of hearing, and each of these experiences varies greatly. In my most recent book, Hear Me (Carolrhoda Books, 2022) my character’s profoundly deaf and qualifies for cochlear implants, but she’s refusing that surgery. Instead, she wants to get by with her hearing aids and learn American Sign Language (ASL).
In Anna’s book, Give Me a Sign (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2023), her main character, Lilah, is severely deaf and wears hearing aids. She works as a junior counselor at a summer camp for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing children along with kids who have vision loss. Her book brilliantly offers a nuanced representation of diversity even within this disability community.
Anna, I absolutely adored Give Me a Sign, It’s full of warmth, a perfect cast of characters, and fun camp shenanigans. I devoured it over two days after it debuted this past summer, and I have so many questions for you, but I’ll keep it to five as promised to our readers.
Kerry: Both of our books begin with our main character in an audiology booth having their hearing checked. I’ve always despised this testing myself, but you wrote a line that touched me profoundly: It’s my hearing being tested, not me. I try to constantly remind myself of this. Can you explain to readers why you included this?
Anna: There’s always a bit of anxiety once something is a test, you know? The involved language can feel accusatory – “you failed”, which is how a lot of people start their deafness journey, whether they’re told those words, or their parents receive those results when they’re too young to realize they’re experiencing the world differently from any other infant. I also wanted to establish from the beginning that in this story Lilah was already at peace with her hearing loss, rather it was the identity and cultural aspect of it that she was about to explore.
Kerry: What’s your favorite scene in your book—poignant, fun, or other?
Anna: I adore the scene where the group is playing Honey, If You Love Me, and Isaac approaches Lilah. So in front of everyone, as part of the silly game, she has to tell her crush that she loves him… All part of that summer camp charm.
Kerry: Why did you decide to write this story as a YA romance?
Anna: Romance is really the heart of the story. I knew with this setting that a camp novel would feel incomplete without a sweet, summer romance. Everyone is worthy of love, but a lot of people out there seem to forget that includes disabled people. I wasn’t sure how receptive readers would be, but even from the earliest drafts of Give Me a Sign, the notes I always got were “more Isaac please!”
Kerry: I wasn’t diagnosed with hearing loss until I was sixteen, but I almost wish it had been earlier and that I could have attended a camp like Camp Grey Wolf. What was your favorite memory from when you attended a similar camp?
Anna: So it was probably one of my first summers as a camper when I was really young and didn’t know much ASL yet, I was on a top bunk in the cabin across from another camper. Her eyes went wide and terrified, and she crossed her wrists with fingers wiggling, trying to urgently sign something to me. It took a second to figure out that she was warning me about a giant spider on the wall behind me. And then this moment came full circle for me when at one of my launch events for Give Me a Sign, out of nowhere, a tiny little spider came dangling down from the ceiling right in front of me. How fitting that I gave the love interest Isaac “spider” as his camp sign name!
Kerry: Have you received any feedback from readers that surprised you?
Anna: When I started writing Give Me a Sign, I wasn’t sure this story would ever find a home, let alone this much support and enthusiasm. I’m so delighted by how much readers are relating to this novel. The feeling of being “caught in the middle” is a somewhat universal one, so even people who aren’t disabled have found themselves pulled between different aspects of their identities, searching for belonging.
Anna: And now, Kerry, I’m excited to ask you questions about your latest book, Hear Me. I love that we’re at such a great point where in publishing more of us are getting the opportunity to write stories inspired by our own deaf experiences. Since I don’t use cochlear implants myself, I really appreciated how your book gives readers insight into the debate around their usage, and I was at the edge of my seat wondering how the story was going to resolve.
Anna: When writing a first-person point of view with a character who doesn’t fully hear all dialogue, we had to find ways to implement those gaps in the text. Did you worry about readers getting frustrated being put in your character’s shoes, especially those used to having full access to conversations?
Kerry: Writing Hear Me in first-person was intentional. I actually hoped readers would get frustrated, giving them an authentic peek into my own daily reality. But on the flip side, I didn’t want it to be so aggravating that the reader would give up on the story. Many readers have since told me, “I had no idea what you go through every day.” So I think I accomplished what I set out to do, and I hope it fosters more patience and empathy from those in the hearing world.
Anna: How much of Rayne’s journey was inspired by your own? Was it difficult to put some of these strong emotions on the page?
Kerry: It took me many years to accept my hearing loss, and I swore I’d never write a story about it. I wasn’t brave enough to share the part of me that I’d denied and kept hidden for over half my life. I credit the We Need Diverse Books movement for helping me step out of my comfort zone and write my truth. It was therapeutic in a way I never thought possible or even expected. Rayne’s story isn’t mine, but her feelings along the way very much are.
Anna: I appreciated how you touched on the fact that insurance can dictate a lot of healthcare choices for patients. For Rayne, her cochlear implant surgery would be covered, whereas her hearing aids weren’t, which was clearly a leading factor in her parents’ push for the surgery. If you were to meet a family in a similar situation, what guidance would you give them?
Kerry: One of my favorite parts of the book is when Mr. Lazar asks Rayne and her family if they’ve really given themselves time to grieve Rayne’s hearing loss. Like any loss, it’s important to take a step back and give yourself the space to get to a place of acceptance before any life-altering decisions are made. So my advice to any family going through this would be the same. Take time. Go to therapy. Do whatever you need to do to first accept the loss. And then get educated on the multitude of options for going forward. I particularly love how Rayne’s story ends in relation to this. In fact, it’s what most people have commented on most. So many didn’t see that coming.
Anna: Which side character did you have the most fun writing?
Kerry: I loved writing Jenika for loads of reasons! First, because of how I named the character. You can read that story here. But also because I love kick-butt female friendships and girls who champion each other no matter what. In this story, I especially love that Jenika doesn’t dwell for one second on Rayne’s disability. She’s the kind of friend I wish for everyone to have in their life.
Anna: Are you eager to continue exploring deafness in your future books?
Kerry: Oh, definitely. My next two books both tackle deafness in different ways. I was born hearing. As I mentioned above, I wasn’t diagnosed with hearing loss until I was sixteen. It was mild but progressive at the time. Eventually, over many years, I became fully deaf. I’ve lived all stages of hearing loss–wearing hearing aids for years and now being unilaterally implanted. Because of this, there’s potential for me to write characters depicting the many gradients of hearing loss. I’m excited for that and for the readers who get to explore these kinds of stories. I know I wish I’d had a book with deaf representation back when I was sixteen.
Anna: Yes, kids not only need to see themselves in the books they read, but they also need to develop empathy for lives different than their own. I hope we’ll continue to see more disability representation, especially from marginalized voices. Readers are certainly hungry for these stories.
Kerry: So true! Publishing is doing a better job of putting these books out in the world, and I’m grateful for that. Not for myself, but for the kids who need these books. Again and again I will say how much I would have benefited from this back in the day. I would have felt less alone.
Anna: Exactly, it would’ve made such a difference to have stories like these growing up. Want to share a bit about what we’ve got coming out next?
Kerry: For sure! In my forthcoming book, Make a Little Wave (Carolrhoda Books, Lerner Publishing August 6, 2024), my character has two cochlear implants and is quite proud of them. Sav is what I like to call an accidental activist–discovering the impact of shark fishing on the ocean’s ecosystem and setting out to change Florida laws. And then I have a nonfiction picture book, The Gallaudet Eleven: The Story of NASA’s Deaf Bioastronauts (Little Brown Books for Young Readers March 2026) that tells the incredible and little known story of a group of deaf men who helped us win the Space Race.
Anna: So exciting – I’m very glad we’re getting a nonfiction children’s book around the Gallaudet Eleven! And my upcoming novel is On the Bright Side (PRH July 2, 2024). It’s a YA contemporary romance that focuses on the notion of disability pride, both in terms of deafness and chronic illness.
Kerry: I love those themes, Anna, and I can’t wait to read it.
Thanks for joining us here, everyone, and to celebrate Deaf Awareness Month, we’re each giving one lucky winner signed copies of our books. US entries only, please.
HOW TO ENTER:
- Follow us on Instagram and Twitter (Kerry Twitter KerryOCerra IG KerryOMalleyCerra)(Anna Twitter and IG are both AnnaKSortino)
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Kerry O’Malley Cerra is an award-winning author of middle-grade books. Her first novel, Just a Drop of Water (Sky Pony, 2014), landed on five state reading lists, won the Crystal Kite Award, a Florida Book Award, and was named to VOYA’s Top Shelf Fiction list for 2014. Her second novel, Hear Me, is out now. Stay tuned for her forthcoming book, Make a Little Wave (August 6, 2024 Carolrhoda Books Lerner Publishing) and her debut nonfiction picture book tentatively titled The Gallaudet Eleven: The Story of NASA’s Unheard of Bioastronauts (March 2026 Little Brown Books for Young Readers).
Kerry’s work has received praise from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, VOYA, and the Horn Book Guide calling her stories perceptive, well-developed, and woven with an expert hand. Kerry lives in South Florida with her family and two poorly behaved rescue dogs.
Anna Sortino is a young adult author who writes stories about disabled characters living their lives and falling in love. She’s Deaf and passionate about diverse representation in media. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, Anna has since lived in different cities from coast to coast, spending her free time exploring nature with her dog or reading on the couch with her cat. Give Me a Sign is her debut novel.