Before she was even two years old, Helen Keller became both blind and deaf. From that time until she was 6 years old, she lived in a world of darkness and silence, trying to fit in with her family and society as a whole. Annie Sullivan, herself visually impaired, came into Helen’s life at this time and, through patience and extreme hard work and diligence, she opened up the realm of possibilities for Helen through a myriad of tools including sign language and Braille. Author and illustrator Joseph Lambert brings a brief part of their time together to life in this new book.
The Center for Cartoon Studies, which has given readers other great glimpses into the history of such notable figures as Amelia Earhart and Satchel Paige, presents this book and their graphic novels have quickly risen to the top of my “best of” lists. This new one is no exception. I knew very little about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, thus I was coming into their story with a high expectation that I would really learn something from reading the book and I truly did. This perfect snapshot of not only Helen, but of Annie’s story, as well, really made me so interested in learning more about their time together. The story told within is captivating and entertaining, and portraying their story in graphic novel form opened up Helen’s world even more to me as a reader.
The artwork of Joseph Lambert is just so unbelievably great. Throughout the book, readers are either watching/reading how situations play out between Annie and Helen or they’re watching/reading flashbacks Annie is having where she remembers the trouble she experienced while growing up being partially blind. Those panels are vividly drawn — very colorful, emotional, and expressive. The very delicate yet vibrantly colored pencil illustrations are very engaging. Oftentimes Annie narrates over the panel, but in a free-form writing style, like you’d find in a diary (no cartoon bubbles for her internal monologue, instead cartoon bubbles are used when she is speaking to Helen through sign-language on Helen’s hand). Helen’s movements and sounds are also incorporated into words through the drawings.
The other type of illustration used is when the illustrator is trying to show the reader how Helen is interpreting situations. These drawings are black panels with “fuzzy” drawings of people and objects, showing how Helen is reconciling what Annie is signing on her hand and putting that together with how she’s imagining how things look as she feels them with her other hand. She is developing her own way of seeing that is the combination of the signing and words with the feel and shape of the object; objects and concepts aren’t clear and focused because she can’t see exactly how they look. For example, one particularly touching panel comes after a lead up of regularly illustrated panels that show Annie putting Helen’s hand in water and then spelling the word in sign language on Helen’s hand. To show the breakthrough as it happens in Helen’s brain, a nondescript and fuzzy little girl is drawn to represent Helen. She is standing next to a pitcher of water that is labeled “pitcher” with the water inside being labeled “water.” Before this point, Helen’s panels were just the girl shape touching or holding unknown objects. In this important panel, readers can see that although Helen still has only a basic and rudimentary understanding of the shape and outline of objects, she can now put a word and purpose to previously unknown objects. The way the two different styles of illustration play against each other really bring the reader not only into Annie’s world, but Helen’s, as well. Well done.
Another aspect of this book that really works well is the paneling of each page. Every page has more than the average four to six panels as seen in many comic books or graphic novels. The majority of the pages contain twelve to sixteen panels per page, which seems like it wouldn’t work and would be difficult to read, but it most certainly isn’t. There is so much interaction and discussion in this book, that the need for many panels is correct — to convey the amount of “doing” that is going on in Annie and Helen’s story, one really must use a multitude of panels to get the message across. After all, a lot is happening in a short amount of time. Also, Joseph Lambert includes pages of panel discussions in the back of the book that bring even more meaning and explanation to particular panels.
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is really one of my most favorite nonfiction graphic novels. Perfect for novices to their story or those already well-versed, this book would be a great addition to any library, and I will look forward to recommending it to someone who didn’t know they were looking for a graphic novel!
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller
by Joseph Lambert
Hyperion Books, 2012