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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Helen's Big World: The Life of Helen Keller. Written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Matt Tavares. Disney Hyperion, Hachette. 2012. $18.99 ages 6 and up

"When Helen was nineteen months old, an illness her doctors could not name struck her. When she recovered, she could no longer see or hear or speak.  When her parents pressed her close, she knew their smell and touch. But she could not see them or hear them or say their names."

As she has done in her other wonderful picture book biographies, Doreen Rappaport captures the essence of her subject and allows her readers a clear look at Helen's life and its major events. But this book is not just about Helen Keller, it is also about her brilliant and dedicated teacher, Annie Sullivan. Had Annie not come into Helen's life, we may know nothing about her. What a life changer her teacher was!

That being said, I would not want to take anything away for the spirit and determination, and the unquestioned intelligence of the young Helen. Ms. Rappaport begins when Helen was born, a happy, giggling baby who filled her parents' lives with wonder and love. The illness at nineteen months changed everything. She wanted so badly to reach out from the darkened world that had become hers, and made up some signs that would allow communication. There were very few, and Helen was constantly frustrated:

"My failures to make myself understood were followed by outbursts."

When she was nearly seven, Annie Sullivan arrived, understanding some of the frustrations that Helen knew. She, too, had been blind but had regained her sight with surgery. Helen was not so lucky. Annie was patient, and persistent, and bent on helping her young charge make sense of her world and to her world.

Learn she did! Helen was a sponge for the things that Annie wanted to teach her. Breakthrough moments are captured with joy and followed with endless new learning:

"With her fingers, Helen felt
the vibrations of
a person laughing,
a chick bursting out of an egg,
a  horse neighing, 
and a baby pig squealing.
And Annie spelled each new word or idea."

While Helen's life had many complications and is a long tale to tell, Ms. Rappaport is able to make it very accessible for a young audience, and she wills them to find out more about this amazing woman. I love that she includes personal quotes from Helen, throughout her life. Excerpts from letters that Helen learned to write are also included. By the time she was eight, many people knew about her. Now that she could write, she wanted to read. Would nothing stop her? It seemed not. So, Annie taught her to read Braille.

From birth to death at 87, Helen Keller provided a beacon of hope for those who faced the world with personal difficulties. She was a social activist, a sought-after speaker and proof that obstacles need not overwhelm one's life. She was, and remains, an inspiration.

Matt Tavares uses watercolor, pencil and gouache to create the realistic, close-up images that beautifully match the passion and energy with which Helen lived her life. They allow young readers a look at the world in which Helen lived, her joy in learning, and her love for sharing her thoughts and ideas with a wider world. 

The author and illustrator each provide a thoughtful note about their own experience in learning about Helen. I love what Matt Tavares has to say about his need to remember what she could do, rather than what she could not. These are followed by a time line, selected research sources, and websites that might be helpful in learning more about her. I admire that Disney*Hyperion valued this book enough to use Braille at the top of the book's cover to let blind readers know they are reading a book called Helen's Big World. The inclusion of the Manual Language Chart that Annie used to teach Helen on the back end papers makes for a perfect ending!

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