Do children really need another story about Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan? If it’s Deborah Hopkinson’s enthralling picture-book biography, then the answer is an overwhelming yes. Blending riveting narration with portions of actual letters Sullivan wrote to her own teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, the author begins with the arrival of 20-year-old Sullivan and her first charge, six-year-old Helen, who “was like a small, wild bird, throwing herself against the bars of a dark and silent cage.”
While the book does feature such famous scenes as Helen’s dinner disaster and her breakthrough at the water pump, the focus is on Helen’s need for language and how Sullivan taught her to communicate. Using the world as Helen’s classroom, Sullivan helped her understand sound by placing frogs and crickets in her hands, which allowed her to feel them vibrate as they croaked and chirped. The teacher even found ways to teach abstract concepts like thinking.
Readers may associate Helen’s learning with sign language, but Sullivan also showed her pupil how to read with raised alphabet letters and Braille. On her first trip away from home in 1887, Helen was able to write a letter home to her mother. Illustrated with award winner Raul Colón’s muted watercolors, the book also includes numerous black-and-white photographs, a copy of Helen’s letter to her mother and a Braille alphabet on the back cover for young readers to practice Helen’s skills. Most importantly, Hopkinson shows how in the process of learning to communicate Helen also learned to be a girl again.