The Cybils graphic novel categories were full of true life stories this year – a couple of graphic memoirs and two or three (depending on your definition) historical biographies. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller was a standout among them – just really well-done overall, with a fascinating true story and art that does more than just illustrate the book.
The relationship between Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller is a fairly well-known one, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to mine the same material in new and interesting ways. Lambert uses Annie Sullivan’s own letters as a springboard for the story, thereby grounding it in historical fact. It’s also a great way to give the reader some personal insight into Annie’s mind and allow us to experience the many frustrations as well as triumphs she experienced while working with Helen.
The story jumps back and forth in time, between Annie’s childhood in an almshouse and at the Perkins School for the Blind to her time as a young adult with Helen at the Kellers’ home. (The technique is well-intentioned, but sometimes transitions are difficult to pick up on.) This makes the book much more Annie’s story than Helen’s. We get a clear picture of Annie as a determined and intelligent woman, sometimes quick to an outpouring of temper, but well-matched to deal with Helen in her younger years.
One of the best techniques used here is the art, which really illuminates Helen’s transition to understanding the world around her. Before Annie is able to communicate with Helen, Helen’s world as drawn from her point of view is gray and shapeless. As the idea that things have names begins to crystallize for her, so too does the world around her. It’s a simple and brilliant visual idea, something so well-suited to a comic book about a blind girl.
I wouldn’t call the art beautiful, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s well-done and visually interesting, though sometimes the text can be a bit difficult to read. This is a great example of a graphic book where writing and art go hand-in-hand, each necessary to the other.
The end of the book focuses some on a plagiarism scandal that I hadn’t know about previously. Helen wrote a story as a child called The Frost King that was later discovered to be very similar to another author’s story. When this comes to light, Annie is accused of copying the story and passing it off as Helen’s, or of narrating the story to Helen, who then copied it. It was difficult for Helen to understand the concept of owning words, and the book leaves this pretty open-ended, which frustrated me (but perhaps that’s more of a personal failing than the book’s). It certainly encouraged me to do some further reading after I had finished the book, which is not a bad thing at all.
This will certainly appeal to kids already interested in Helen Keller, who seems to be a perennially popular topic for school reports. I can also see it being used in classrooms in conjunction with Miss Spitfire or a viewing/production of The Miracle Worker (which was put on by my own high school class when I was a teenager).