We here at the House of Hope have a compelling interest in Helen Keller because of our proximity to her birthplace, Ivy Green, so when I saw this picture biography on the list of Cybils nonfiction picture book nominations, I placed my request for it at one of our libraries. My girls snapped it up and read it immediately and with great interest. When I finally had my turn with Annie and Helen by Deborah Hopkinson, an author whose books I never fail to enjoy, I was initially tentatively happy with reservations, but my enthusiasm for this book has since increased and I am happy to give it a Highly Recommended. Helen Keller’s story itself is one we know well from having been to the annual outdoor performance of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker that is performed on the grounds of Ivy Green each summer. (This is where Steady Eddie and I went on our first date over fourteen years ago!) Annie and Helen relates the story of Helen’s early life, from birth up through the time Annie Sullivan came to be her teacher and profoundly changed her life. Hopkinson‘s prose is wonderfully expressive of the emotion and tension that must’ve permeated Ivy Green during Helen’s early years:
Helen was like a small, wild bird,
throwing herself against the bars of
a dark and silent cage.
Hopkinson communicates the empathy Annie Sullivan, who had been blind herself, had for Helen, as well as her determination to help her:
Annie spelled into Helen’s palm all day long.
Like someone on a windy peak
trying to kindle a fire for warmth,
Annie kept hoping for a spark to catch.
The climax of the story happens at the old pump at Ivy Green, of course, and Hopkinson communicates the magic of the breakthrough beautifully. After this, the book highlights strong, sharp, and eager mind which enabled her to acquire language very rapidly, mastering finger spelling, the Braille alphabet, and writing in block letters herself. Hopkinson ends the story with Helen traveling away from home with her father and sending her mother home a letter she both composed and physically wrote herself. A reproduction of the letter comprises the last page of the story.
I think my familiarity with Helen’s story caused me to have very high expectations for this story, and for the most part, it delivers. Hopkinson‘s very vivid storytelling paints Helen’s sharp mind and Annie’s stubborn determination beautifully. I was a little taken aback the first time I read it because it seemed to me to end very abruptly. However, I realize that the main story had been told by then, so for the picture book format this is a very logical and satisfying place to end. Hopkinson also incorporates excerpts from letters Annie wrote to her friend and teacher back at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, and this adds a great deal of perspective. The first time I read it, I thought Raul Colón’s portrait-like illustrations were a little too subdued for the extreme emotion I’ve always associated with the story. However, after a subsequent, more thoughtful reading, I like the illustrations. They lend a dignity to both Helen and Annie that they certainly both deserve, and they also remind me of Garth Williams’ illustrations from the Little House on the Prairie series. Actual photographs from Helen’s life collaged on the endpapers of this picture book add much to the overall story. Another bonus feature is that the actual Braille alphabet is reproduced on the back cover of the book; touching the raised dots really makes an impression after reading the story. This is a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in Helen Keller, and since I consider her someone everyone should be interested in, that means that this is a book for everyone. Highly Recommended. (Schwartz and Wade, 2012)
- My interview with Deborah Hopkinson
- My review of Apples to Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson
- My review of Fannie in the Kitchen by Deborah Hopkinson
- My review of Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek by Deborah Hopkinson
- Helen Keller read-alouds
Of course, today is also Nonfiction Monday, and I am this week’s hostess! I am very excited to participate in one of the Kidlitosphere’s most informative memes! If you’re looking for some great nonfiction titles to add to your must-read list, take a look at these links! If you’re here to share your link, welcome!
Next week’s Nonfiction Monday will be hosted by Diane R. Kelly at Practically Paradise.