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Review: Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller

In 1887, Annie Sullivan, a valedictorian graduate from the Perkins Institution (a school for the blind), traveled down South to Alabama to become the teacher for Helen Keller, a seven-year-old girl who was left blind and deaf after a childhood illness. With Annie’s help, Helen learned to understand the world again, communicating first by letters finger-spelled into her hands, though she later learned to write and speak. Helen is often the person people read about and study, but this new graphic novel allows readers to see more of who her teacher was.

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller
Joseph Lambert
Ages 12-adult
Disney/Hyperion, March 2012, ISBN 978-142311336-2
96 pages, $17.99

With only the knowledge of Annie’s work with Helen, it’s easy to romanticize Annie as nothing more than a dedicated and saintly teacher, but Lambert restores Annie’s true self—prickly, short-tempered, and lonely. Annie is the true subject of this book, and teen readers in particular will appreciate her frustration with traditional roles and her anger at the world. Abandoned at an institution with a sickly brother who soon died, Annie was reluctant to trust anyone, fearful that they were laughing at her impoverished background. She herself suffered from weak eyes and was only just recovering from surgery when she became Helen’s teacher. Lambert does a great job of showing Annie’s strong personality, allowing her to tell us her feelings with a furrowed brow or hunched shoulders or tired eyes. Lambert often flashes back in time, switching from Annie’s work with Helen back to Annie’s childhood at the institution and at Perkins, so his book requires readers to pay attention. He also uses small panels, up to 16 per page, and smaller font, both of which will limit this to readers who are willing to invest the time (though they were not an insurmountable hurdle for this very near-sighted reviewer). His thinly lined, softly colored art doesn’t overwhelm his panels and he knows just when to pull back for a longer look at a scene and when to zoom in for the greatest emotional impact.

Where Lambert really soars, though, is when he illustrates what Helen might have thought and felt during her years of darkness and in the period afterward, when she began to be able to comprehend the world again thanks to Annie’s work with her. For those panels, he abandons formal styles. At first we see only a lumpy, roughly human shape that navigates a dark and silent world, lashing out when threatened or challenged. In one powerful panel, the solemn figure sits alone in a long, black panel. Five pages later this is mirrored by another long, black panel which features the huddled, friendless form of Annie, curled up in her bed. These sad images only heighten the joy felt when Helen begins to understand that the shapes Annie makes in her hands are names, the names of the things that surround her. After that when we see the world through Helen’s mind, the black panels are filled with images and each of those images has a name. Those names are what built a world inside the mind of a girl who had previously been alone. And by helping to build that world, a lonely young woman found a lifelong friend.

If I had one complaint, it is that the book ends on a sad note, with Helen and Annie traumatized by accusations of plagiarism. To me that undercuts the power of the work that Annie did and offers the possibility of confusing readers who know little about Helen’s story. But that is a very small complaint registered by a reviewer who is, admittedly, overly fond of happy endings. Careful readers who don’t mind diving into a story wholeheartedly and who understand that sad endings often disguise new beginnings will be rewarded by this close look at an amazing and delightfully flawed woman and the girl she taught and loved.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Disney/Hyperion.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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