Lion October 2013 : Page 38

Helen Keller Reimagined A new graphic novel shows the trials of young Helen Keller and her teacher. by John R. Platt

Helen Keller Reimagined

John R. Platt

A new graphic novel shows the trials of young Helen Keller and her teacher.

In 1887 Anne Sullivan made history when she traveled to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to become Helen Keller’s life-changing teacher. Their relationship is dramatized in the movie “The Miracle Worker” and countless books and narratives over the years. It’s a story that many Lions practically know by heart.

But in many ways Keller’s story really started more than a decade before she was born when Sullivan herself was a half-blind, illiterate, angry child growing up in a Massachusetts poorhouse. Those experiences shaped young Annie, just as they shape the narrative of “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller,” a new graphic novel about the famous duo by cartoonist Joseph Lambert.

The powerful, new hardcover book tells intertwining stories about the lives of Keller and her teacher, starting soon after the two met but also flashing back to the defining moments in Sullivan’s childhood. Lambert, an exciting, innovative cartoonist, uses bold drawings, sharp dialogue (often drawn from the heroines' own writings) and at times surreal artwork to bring us deep inside the women’s lives and minds. The $17.99 graphic novel, released by Disney/Hyperion in 2012, is available from booksellers everywhere.

Lambert originally set out to focus on Keller's life, but the more he read about Anne Sullivan, the more he knew she deserved an equal focus. “It was Annie that really anchored the story for me,” the slender, confident 28- year-old artist says from his studio in White River Junction, Vermont, where he lives with his wife and dog. Lambert’s research led him to dozens of books written by and about Helen Keller including Keller's collected letters, the famous “Miracle Worker” play and its lesser-known sequel, a 1933 biography of Sullivan and newspaper accounts from the 1880s. “It wasn't until I really learned about Annie’s life and where she came from before she met Helen that I became emotionally invested. I could relate to Annie and her struggle to overcome the identity that was created for her by her circumstances,” Lambert says.

Bringing Anne to Life

In 1874 Sullivan and her brother Jimmy were abandoned by their widower father at a poorhouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. There, surrounded by the dying and the dead, they were forced to find what little joy they could in the worst circumstances. Jimmy died at the poorhouse. Young Annie herself only found salvation after she was transferred to the Perkins School for the Blind in 1880. Dr. Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, took the young woman under his wing and directed her anger toward self-improvement. After she graduated, he would ask Sullivan to become Keller’s teacher.

Unlike many books about Keller, the graphic novel brings Sullivan’s dark and painful past to the forefront. “I think a lot of people were surprised that at least half of the book was dedicated to Annie’s childhood,” Lambert says. “Helen should be celebrated because she accomplished so much, but I think a lot of the time Annie gets overlooked.” He hopes readers will come away from the book with understanding the symbiotic nature of their relationship. “They both contributed to what we see as Helen, the iconic figure that she became,” he says. Providing greater context on Sullivan's childhood also serves to illuminate how and why she fights so hard to succeed with Keller. “Her relationship with her brother is crucial to how she relates with Helen,” he says.

Deborah Ford, director of library outreach for the Junior Library Guild, says Lambert's focus on Annie is overdue. “This book introduces aspects of the Sullivan-Keller story that we haven't gotten before," she says. “Helen struggled with her physical problems, but her teacher also had the same kind of physical and emotional struggles. Between the two of them, they did miraculous things.”

Drawing Blindness

Annie’s story shaped the book’s narrative, but Lambert says the chance to visually depict Helen's world was what first attracted him to the assignment. “I knew the story would present a lot of challenging visuals,” he says. “That got me excited as a cartoonist.” The artist’s visually stunning drawings and stories have appeared in numerous comic books and anthologies, multiple volumes of “The Best American Comics” and fine art prints. In 2011 he released “I Will Bite You,” a series of dream-like short stories.

Lambert uses the first three pages of the graphic novel to show us the world though young Helen’s point of view. The child lives in a world of darkness, surrounded by indistinct shapes that she does not understand. Frustratingly, she is not alone in the darkness. Unknown hands—later revealed to be Annie’s—reach out to her, forcing her to do tasks she can't even begin to comprehend. It is a world of anger, pain and loneliness.

As the book progresses Lambert takes us further inside Keller’s head. While she learns, the indistinct shapes become clearer. In addition, sign language symbols and words —taught to her by Sullivan—become a part of the art. This narrative device shows us that young Helen is beginning to understand the world around her: that the substance she feels on her hands is water, or that the wooden structure beneath her is a chair, or the difference between “small” and “very small.” It’s an effect that could only have been achieved through the visual medium of comics.

“Comics can express ideas and emotions in ways that are unique and memorable,” says Peter Gutierrez, the spokesperson on graphic novels for the National Council of Teachers of English. “The graphic novel allows readers to trace Keller’s changing consciousness—including her relationship to Sullivan and her very conception of self—by noting the gradual effect that her education has on the content and complexity of the artwork.”

At just 80 pages, the graphic novel can’t tell the entire life stories for either Keller or Sullivan. Keller is just 11 years old at the end of the book, so we don't get to see her graduate from college, become politically active or challenge Lions to become the knights of the blind. “There's just so much in both of their lives,” Lambert says. “Helen lived until she was 80. You could go decade by decade and write one of these books for each period.”

Struggles, Then Triumph

The graphic novel is the fourth in a series of historical biographies published by Disney and produced by the staff, alumni and, in some instances, the students of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. Founded in 2004, the center is the only accredited college-level program devoted entirely to comics. Lambert, who has been drawing since he was a child, graduated from the school in 2008 with a master’s degree in fine arts. He was actually still a student there when the school's founder, cartoonist James Sturm, gave him the assignment.

Now a full-time artist, Lambert says his experiences at the school helped to define his approach to the novel. “I've had a handful of really strong teacher-student relationships over the years. They definitely informed the story,” he says.

It actually took Lambert four years to complete the graphic novel, much longer than planned. “I had a really hard time getting the ball rolling early on,” he says. “I would report to my editors, who were also my teachers. There were days when I would walk into their office with not as much done as I had planned.” The frustration he felt in himself ended up strengthening his storytelling. “I realized I had that same kind of frustrated, disappointing feeling that Annie had when she just could not break through to Helen,” he says.

The hard work paid off: the book landed on “best of 2012” lists from School Library Journal, the Junior Library Guild and other groups.

Platt is a member of the Boothbay Region Lions Club in Maine.

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