Hear Me: An Interview with Author Kerry O’Malley Cerra

The new middle-grade novel Hear Me is a sensitive and authentic portrayal of a girl experiencing progressive hearing loss written by Kerry O’Malley Cerra who has also experienced progressive hearing loss. The story follows Rayne, who resists her parents’ efforts to “fix” her and rethinks her own assumptions about what her condition means for her.

Today Kerry joins us to share some of her inspiration for the book and her personal connections to the story. Don’t forget to download the free discussion guide and watch the official book trailer!

How did you come up with your book’s title, Hear Me?

My first published book’s title, Just a Drop of Water, comes from the lyrics of the song “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. I’ve always loved that song, and it fit well with my story. I didn’t actively set out to name this new book, Hear Me, after a song, but in one of the final scenes—a talent show—someone sings this very song by Kelly Clarkson, and it speaks to Rayne’s longing for her parents to simply listen to her. At that point, I was happy to have a title at all because for so long I’d referred to this book as “the hearing loss story.” I wouldn’t say I’m a huge music aficionado—mainly because I’ve struggled to hear anything clearly for most of my life—but it’s fun to see how long this trend of using song titles or lyrics as book titles might continue for me.

In the story, Rayne feels that she’s not being heard by her parents as they battle over whether she’ll get cochlear implants. As the surgery date approaches and her parents refuse to cancel it, Rayne decides to run away. Have you ever run away? If not, did you want to?

Oh gosh, I thought about it several times—especially when my parents made me give my dog away. I never actually went through with running away, though. Like Rayne, I was a bit of a chicken about going places alone, especially places that were unfamiliar. Instead, I used to fantasize that I could somehow build a secret clubhouse under my bedroom floor. In that dream, I’d pull back the carpet under my bed, lift a latch, climb down a ladder, and take comfort in a space filled with all my favorite things (including my dog). Even all these years later, I can still picture that imaginary room vividly. Maybe it’ll end up in a book someday.

Do you consider yourself Deaf or deaf?

First, let me say, I’m no expert in any of this. I’ve heard of different groups within the deaf community, some referring to themselves with the capital D, but I don’t know enough about it to speak to that. I was born hearing and became deaf gradually over many years, so I spent most of my life never feeling like I fit in with the hearing world or the deaf one. I couldn’t hear, but I also didn’t know sign. I grappled with learning ASL more times than I can count, but even if I’d become fluent, my family and friends didn’t know that language, so at that time I feared I would have still been without a solid way to communicate with those around me. It was a scary place. I lived in denial, refusing to admit how bad my hearing was, for so long. But while researching for this book, I finally decided that a cochlear implant was the right choice for me to have my best quality of life. It’s the only way I know how to function in a hearing world. It’s all I’ve ever known—for close to 50 years. But I’ve seen deaf people who are fluent in ASL function well in both worlds. Again, I can only speak for myself. The CI has, for the most part, helped me tremendously. I got lucky in that my surgery was a success and without complications. That’s not always the case, and it comes with huge risks. I do recognize the limitation of CIs in general, so I’m now learning ASL—though I’m only marginally grasping it at this point. It’s an incredibly beautiful language. And when I do become fluent, I’ll feel safer knowing that when my bionic ear is off, I’ll still have a means to communicate.

Let’s get personal . . . How do you feel when people see your hearing aid or your CI? Do you prefer they ask you about them?

When I was growing up, lots of people I knew openly made fun of those with disabilities. Because of that, when I was diagnosed with hearing loss at age sixteen, I did all I could to hide it—and ultimately deny I had a disability at all. I’m better about this now, but that initial hesitation is still there when I talk publicly about my loss. Writing this book helped me gain confidence in that regard, and I welcome the questions now—especially from kids or parents who are considering options for their hard of hearing or deaf child. Raising awareness encourages acceptance—not just tolerance—and that’s a win for everyone.

This story has a lot of personal connections for you. How did it feel to put so much of yourself on paper?

In hindsight, it was definitely therapeutic. I spent a lot of my life wishing I weren’t going deaf rather than dealing with it. Most people will tell you they see me as a strong, confident person, but it’s not true when it comes to my hearing. The worse my hearing grew, the more I withdrew from society. As an adult, I remember reading El Deafo by Cece Bell and sobbing, not only because I was thrilled to realize someone else out there had the same feelings about being deaf that I did, but also because I was in awe of Cece’s honesty and candor about something I hid from. After that, I think I was subconsciously more open to the idea of writing a book with a character who was deaf simply because I wished so much that I’d had Cece’s book to read when I was first diagnosed. I would’ve felt less alone. I’m glad I allowed myself to be vulnerable while writing Hear Me, and I hope it gives authenticity to Rayne’s character. Plus, my research for this book led me to a wonderful cochlear implant doctor who ended up changing my life!

What do you hope readers will gain from this book? 

Overall, it seems today’s kids are much more accepting of people with disabilities than kids were back in my youth. I wonder if mainstreaming students with disabilities had a hand in that, along with our push in recent years for SEL (Social Emotional Learning) in schools. But it also makes me wonder if mainstreaming is what’s best for deaf students who often thrive better in schools designed for deaf people. Regardless, I’m happy that disabilities in general aren’t such taboo anymore. There’s been a huge movement to encourage diverse representation in everything from movies to TV ads to literature. Yet there are still many misconceptions regarding deafness specifically. What’s the best or right way to be deaf? It really is an individual choice. I guess I hope this story might give families dealing with this situation pause. Help them know it’s okay to take a step back and really evaluate all choices–and hopefully include the child in that process. But more than anything, I hope the book finds its way to a child who’s going through a similar experience and helps them feel less alone—as Cece Bell’s book did for me.

Just for fun, what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

Honestly, I was terrified to ride the public bus when researching for this story. I wore hearing aids at the time, and while they helped a little, I needed to be right in front of another person to understand speech/lip read. I purchased tickets on five separate dates and couldn’t bring myself to show up for any of them before finally forcing myself to go the sixth time because I couldn’t keep wasting money. In my story, when Rayne sets off on her journey, she cannot risk her parents tracking her, so she leaves her phone at home. I had to ride the bus just as Rayne would have, so I also went sans phone, which meant no voice to text app or anything else to help. It was scary, but I was incredibly proud of myself—and relieved—when it was over. Not to mention grateful that afterward I was able to write Rayne’s journey more authentically. Even more scary was having cochlear implant surgery. Terrified is probably a better word for that one. Ordinarily, I love adventure. I especially love the feeling of falling. I wouldn’t call myself an adrenaline junkie, but my bucket list is filled with stuff my mother worries about. Skydiving and snorkeling with sharks are two of my favorite adventures so far, but neither of those things were as scary to me as riding that bus and having implant surgery.

Watch the official Book trailer!

Praise for Hear Me

“This empathetic, appealing story highlights Rayne’s journey to self-acceptance while also exploring her complicated but loving family relationships, loyal friendships, and a little romance. Discussion questions wrap everything up.” —Booklist

“Rayne is a likable protagonist, and readers will root for her. An interesting story of a particular deaf experience.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Asterisks replace unheard words of dialogue in this moving middle grade novel, based on the author’s own life, that follows an adolescent girl’s struggle with both progressive hearing loss and her parents’ insistence that she get cochlear implants.”—The New York Times Book Review

Free Educator Resources

Engage young readers with this downloadable discussion guide!

Connect with the author

Kerry O’Malley Cerra is the author of the award-winning middle-grade novel Just a Drop of Water. She holds a degree in social science education and currently works as a high school media specialist. She lives in Florida with her family and two poorly behaved rescue dogs.

Hear more from Lerner authors on the Lerner blog here!

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