I was excited to get my hands on a copy of The Silence Between Us, as I had yet to review a book for this column featuring a deaf protagonist. I was doubly delighted to know that the story had been written by someone who is herself part of the deaf community — Alison Gervais suffered permanent hearing loss at a very young age, and is hard of hearing. Even the book's cover image is #OwnVoices, designed by deaf artist Nancy Rourke. I was absolutely ready to lose myself in a good book that both respected and celebrated deaf culture, and I was not disappointed.
Maya Harris lost her hearing at 13. She's long had her sights set on entering the medical field, inspired by her younger brother, who has cystic fibrosis. She's been attending a school for the deaf, but due to a family move to Colorado, she ends up Englemann High, a hearing school, for her senior year.
It's difficult enough being the outcast kid at a new school, but Maya has to work ten times harder. Most of her fellow classmates view her deafness as a disability, which annoys her to no end. Coupled with that comes the typical teenage anxiety of imagining other people talking about you behind your back — which, in Maya's case, they usually are. She has a dedicated interpreter to attend class with her, but she still attempts lip reading. Since she was older when she lost her hearing, Maya is verbal, but she prefers to communicate through sign language.
From the first day at her new school, Maya pairs up with Nina Torres, a member of the student council, who offers to be her guide. Soon after, they run into Beau Watson, the incredibly handsome student council president. Maya starts out prickly, defensive, and sometimes even aggressive, but neither of them give up on her. Beau's bumbling attempts to communicate with Maya, even to the point of teaching himself ASL, infuriate her. His awkwardness does feel invasive at first — it takes Maya far longer than it should to realize Beau actually has feelings for her.
Maya also has a lot of deaf pride, and a definite stance on the hotly debated issue of cochlear implants (she's against them). Her frustration and impatience are palpable as she faces one trial after another without a lot of wins — at times, reading her story becomes almost as exhausting as it is compelling.
The most fascinating storytelling acrobatics of this book are in the dialogue. Dialogue is typically used to maintain pace, especially in YA. The Silence Between Us cleverly uses a few non-traditional methods to convey communication: Anything signed is in all capital letters, handwritten notes are in italics. Spoken dialogue has the usual quotation marks, but the words are separated by numerous ellipses and many words are missing ... as Maya tries her best to lip read. It's a very different approach that may sound distracting, but it in no way stops Maya's tale from being a quick and fully engrossing read.
The Silence Between Us is eminently un-put-down-able — I read the whole thing in one sitting. But then, I enjoy books that teach me something and inspire me to continue my education well after the story is finished. I do hope that Maya's story inspires many contemporary young readers in a similar fashion.
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.
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