My favorite reading challenge in 2014 is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit Alyson’s blog to discover more wonderful nonfiction picture books.
This week, my son and I read two picture book biographies of Helen Keller.
Helen Keller’s Best Friend Belle, written by Holly M. Barry and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes, is a solid first introduction to Helen Keller’s life, focusing only on her childhood and made more appealing to the youngest readers by the inclusion of Helen’s dogs. The title is something of a misnomer, however, as the story is really about Keller’s early childhood experiences, and especially about her work with Annie Sullivan, not so much about her favorite dog, Belle, though Belle does appear throughout the illustrations. In fact, Thermes’s illustrations do much of the work of keeping the connection to dogs by including a dog in the illustration even when the words aren’t about a dog at all.
Barry outlines Keller’s early childhood, which most adult readers are probably familiar with–losing her sight and hearing, losing her ability to communicate until the remarkable Annie Sullivan arrives to be her teacher, learning to sign by hand, learning to speak. The famous water pump scene has a central role, though the focus quickly shifts to Belle as Keller sweetly attempts to teach her dog to sign by making letters on Belle’s paws.
The rages that must have been terrifying and exhausting to Helen and to her parents are nowhere in evidence here, and though the text tells us that Helen “felt alone and afraid” after she lost her ability to communicate with her parents, the illustrations considerably soften that fear and loneliness by surrounding Helen with dogs. In one key image, for example, Keller’s parents comfort each other in a lighted room on one side of the spread while Keller sits in a dark corner on the other side of the spread. She’s not really alone, however: one of her dogs (not Belle) is leaning against her back, comforting her.
The story ends when Keller returns from the school in Boston where she learned to speak. Her new knowledge is immediately employed to call Belle and ask her to “come.”
There is a one-page biography of Keller at the back of the book, written in language appropriate for sharing with children, as well as a lively one-page history of Keller and her dogs. She was a lifelong dog lover (it’s fun to Google images of Keller with her dogs–she was repeatedly photographed with them) and even had a pit bull!
If you’re going to read just one biography of Helen Keller, you should make it Doreen Rappaport’s Helen’s Big World. Along with illustrator Matt Tavares, Rappaport has created an exquisite work of art in this book. Such careful and considerate design–from the book cover, with its gorgeous life-size image of Keller smelling a rose and its use of Braille titling, to the end pages, which beautifully depict the memorable water pump scene in an image of Keller’s hand in Sullivan’s and display the Manual Language Chart.
Each spread incorporates one of Tavares’s gorgeous paintings, Rappaport’s thoughtfully crafted text, and a quotation (in large letters and different colored font) from Keller herself. Rappaport does not shy away from the hard parts of Keller’s story–the childhood tantrums and rages, the struggle to understand what Sullivan was trying to teach her, the controversy surrounding her writing, the unpopularity of some of her opinions (anti-war, pro-union, etc.). This is a balanced and incredibly informative portrait of a really interesting and important person.
There is ample back matter, including an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, a chronology, and two bibliographies.