Why Helen Keller? Selecting Subjects for Biographies
Recently I had the opportunity at my day job (I’m vice president for advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon) to take the popular “Strengths Finder” test. My top strength turned out to be “Learner.”
I’d have to say that’s a fairly accurate description. It also explains much about how I choose the subjects I write about in my nonfiction and historical fiction for young readers. I have wide-ranging reading interests (I like to read with my story antennas up). When I’m learning something new, I’m engaged, enthuse, and happy. And then there are those magical moments when I come across something extraordinary that makes me sit up and say, “Wow! How come I never knew that before?” Whenever this happens, there’s a good chance I want to write about it.
That’s certainly true with my new nonfiction picture book, Annie and Helen, illustrated by Raul Colon. Like most people I knew the general outlines of Helen Keller’s life, and I was familiar with the iconic moment at the water pump. But I knew very little of Annie Sullivan, or the details of her actual teaching methods. What I found was astonishing – so astonishing I wanted to share it with young readers.
When I first began researching this book, I actually focused more on Annie Sullivan, whose early life was fraught with hardship. After her mother’s death, she and her little brother were put in an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where her brother later died. Annie, who’d become almost blind herself from trachoma, was able to go to the Perkins School for the Blind when she was 14. Operations partially restored her sight and she graduated in 1886 at the top of her class. The next spring, not quite 21, she set off alone from New England by train to take her first job: teaching a young deaf and blind child in Alabama named Helen Keller.
Annie Sullivan invented her own teaching methods, and that’s what I ultimately decided to write about in Annie and Helen. The book includes excerpts from Annie’s letters to her friend and former house mother, Mrs. Sophia Hopkins. The letters chronicle Helen’s progress and show how inventive and resourceful Annie was as she helped Helen make sense of the world through language. That spring must have been exhilarating for both teacher and student: by July, Helen had mastered enough skills to write a simple letter.
Annie and Helen is not a “cradle to grave biography.” Instead, it covers the period of March-July 1887, when teacher and pupil forged their incredible relationship. While I have written traditional biographies for very young readers on John Adams and Susan B. Anthony, and on Charles Darwin for slightly older readers, I often prefer to focus on a specific incident or a time period in order to illuminate someone’s life. Keep On! focuses on Matthew Henson’s early life and Arctic explorations, A Band of Angels is about Ella Sheppard’s experiences as a Jubilee Singer, and A Boy Called Dickens shows Dickens at age 12, when he was working in a blacking factory.
My books also include both nonfiction and historical fiction. My 2012 title, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is nonfiction. But rather than write a biography of Dr. John Snow, the pioneering epidemiologist who proved that cholera was spread by water, I chose to fictionalize the story in my forthcoming middle grade novel, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel. Hopefully readers will enjoy the story, and also there’s a long author’s note included if they want to know more.
I hope I will also be a reader who wants to know more. And perhaps that’s also a reason for choosing to write about Helen Keller. What better inspiration for the love of learning could there be?
To find out more about Deborah Hopkinson’s books, visit: www.deborahhopkinson.com
You can also discover more by following along on the Annie and Helen Blog Tour
September 1st: Watch. Connect. Read
September 1st: SharpRead
September 2nd: Nerdy Book Club
September 3rd: Bakers and Astronauts
September 4th: Two Writing Teachers
September 5th: Cracking the Cover
September 6th: Teach Mentor Texts
September 7th: Nonfiction Detectives
September 8th: Booking Mama
September 9th: Children’s Book Review
September 10th: Random Acts of Reading
September 11th: 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast