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Putting Books to Work: Joseph Lambert’s ANNIE SULLIVAN AND THE TRIALS OF HELEN KELLER

by Aimee Rogers
January 16, 2013
ANNIE SULLIVAN AND THE TRIALS OF HELEN KELLER (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2012)
Written and illustrated by Joseph Lambert
Grades 5–12


ANNIE SULLIVAN AND THE TRIALS OF HELEN KELLER by Joseph Lambert is a graphic novel about the early relationship between Helen Keller and, her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The graphic novel format provides a unique perspective on Helen’s world without sound and sight, which is portrayed as dark and shapeless. However, as Helen learns more words from Annie, her world becomes more colorful and defined. Many of the panels include images of hands finger spelling words, which adds another dimension to the text.

The other unique aspect of this graphic novel is the focus on Annie’s life before Helen. Often when the relationship between Helen and Annie is discussed, Helen is seen as the one who overcame many obstacles before achieving success. However, Annie’s life was quite difficult as well and she, too, had innumerable hurdles in her life even before becoming Helen’s teacher.

For example, after the death of their mother, Annie and her brother were abandoned by their father at a poorhouse. Annie’s brother, who was already sick, later died at the poorhouse and left Annie to grow-up alone in the frightening surroundings of the State Almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Annie later attended the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, but she struggled there as well, as her feisty personality often got her in trouble.

Finally, this text is a testament to the power of learning and teaching. Helen was considered to be dumb and incapable of learning or living a normal life. However, through Annie’s dedication and persistence Helen became a Radcliffe graduate in 1904.

Passages from Annie’s own writing are included throughout this graphic novel; one passage in particular speaks to Annie’s approach to teaching and is a good reminder to all educators. She writes, “It seems to me that the teacher in a classroom spends much time trying to dig out of the child only what she has put into them. I am convinced that is self-indulgent and a waste of time” (p. 43).

Cross-Curricular Connections: History/Social Studies, Language Arts/English, Visual Literacy

Ideas for Classroom Use:

A World Without Color

As Helen couldn’t see the world around her, Annie had to describe everything to her, including colors. Annie describes brown for Helen as “the color of your dog. And the color of earth, and mud. Some horses are brown. A tree’s trunk and branches are brown. Your hair is brown too” (p. 54).

As a creative writing activity, students could describe colors using their other senses. While this could be a fun activity at any time, it could be particularly helpful in writing poetry. THE BLACK BOOK OF COLORS (Groundwood Books, 2008), written by Menena Cottin and illustrated by Rosana Faria, was created for those without sight. Their book could serve as an example and an interesting discussion piece.

Multiple Viewpoints

There are numerous books, articles, movies and other texts about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Each of these different texts is written from a different perspective. Decisions are made about what information to include and exclude. As a result of these choices, each text provides a different story about these two women. Some of the texts may be more accurate than others, while some texts may focus on emotions rather than events.

Critical readers are able to identify multiple viewpoints in a story and to recognize the impact of these nuances on the information. In this activity, collect as many books, images, movies and other texts about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan as you can. Picture books, like Deborah Hopkinson’s ANNIE AND HELEN (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012, illustrated by Raul Colon) would be great for this activity as they are quicker to read and provide different sources of information via the text and the images.

Working in small groups, students should read and explore multiple texts about Annie and Helen. This should then lead into group discussions about the information provided in each text, the decisions made by the author and the illustrator, and how these choices impacted the reading of the text. Students should/could consider the following questions:

  • Which text seems the most accurate and why?
  • Which text did you like the most and why?
  • Does one text seem to provide the entire story of Annie and Helen? Why or why not?
  • How does reading multiple texts about the same topic influence your knowledge about or impression of the topic?
Ideally, students will come to realize that there are multiple ways to tell a story and that it is important to seek multiple sources of information when exploring any topic. This is an essential component of critical literacy, and critical media literacy in particular, and is becoming increasingly more important in our sound bite dominated world.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

The purpose of this activity is to develop and hone students’ visual literacy skills. Many theorists in the field of comics and graphic novels, including Scott McCloud (UNDERSTANDING COMICS), discuss the importance of “reading” and understanding visual images. As discussed in the summary above, Lambert makes interesting choices in how Helen’s world is portrayed before and after her learning with Annie.

Select several “before” and “after” panels and encourage students to analyze and compare the artistic and compositional changes and what these reflect about Helen’s changing world. For example, in many of the “before” panels Helen is shown surrounded by black space, but in many of the “after” panels the space surrounding Helen is no longer black and empty, but rather, it is filled with items from her world and in addition to the inclusion of these items in the panel they are also labeled or named.

What do these differences indicate about the changes that Helen is undergoing?

Additional Resources and Activities:

Helen Keller International
Helen Keller International is an international nonprofit organization that was founded by Keller in 1915 in an effort to prevent blindness and reduce malnutrition worldwide. In addition to including information about the organization, this site provides links to additional resources about Helen Keller and her life.

The Annie Mansfield Sullivan Foundation, Inc.
The Annie Mansfield Sullivan Foundation is dedicated to “preserving and honoring the memories of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.” Their website provides extensive information about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, as well as links to additional information. Many photographs can also be found on the site, which can provide a deeper and/or different understanding of both Sullivan and Keller.

National Braille Press
January is National Braille Literacy Awareness Month. This site is a fantastic source for additional information and resources regarding Braille. The site includes a video about Braille technology as well as a downloadable Braille alphabet card and a biography of Louis Braille.

Aimee Rogers is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota studying children’s and adolescent literature. Prior to her return to school, Aimee taught high school students with special needs, in a wide variety of settings, for ten years. She misses working with adolescents but is developing a passion for working with undergraduate pre-service teachers. She has a growing interest in graphic novels for children and young adults and is hoping to make them the topic of her upcoming dissertation.

© 2013 Aimee Rogers. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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