I Am Helen Keller, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
Helen Keller is a fascinating test case when it comes to heroism. Her relationship with her devoted teacher Anne Sullivan and her resourcefulness in overcoming the problems that resulted from a serious illness that left her blind and deaf are genuinely heroic. And yet her suffering had some negative consequences when it came to her political views as well. Her personal dependency based on her disabilities led her to support a greater dependence on government than is either wise or proper, and that is a common problem that one faces. Still, one does not have to dwell on the political misadventures of people resulting from their own learned helplessness and lack of ability to cope with freedom and personal responsibility to appreciate the heroism it takes to overcome such crippling deficits as Helen Keller faced. That she could not have done it without a lot of help is quite true, but that she could not have done it without a great deal of strength of will and perseverance herself is also true. And all we can provide on our own is the strength of will to overcome the obstacles we face, and find the resources we can along the way.
This particular volume looks at Helen Keller’s life, focusing mainly on her childhood. This is smart, because it allows us to see a child who was somewhat precocious and also somewhat spoiled deal unsuccessfully with isolation and loneliness and an inability to communicate with the world. Her discovery of language allows her to communicate with others, and her use of braille and the hand-spelling that allowed her to get a college degree. Up to this point all is well and good as far as heroism is concerned. Most children (and many adults) can at least imagine how difficult it would be to be in a world of darkness and silence where one had grave difficulties in playing with animals and making one’s needs and wants understood by others. However, at this point the book has a coda that promotes her celebrity status, her writing of books, and we are back to the author’s familiar tendency to celebrate people not for their heroism but for their celebrity. That this is a common failing of the author does not make it any less annoying as a reviewer, though, or any less problematic for the book’s intended audience.
At any rate, this book presents both the virtues as well as the vices of the author’s approach when it comes to celebrating heroism. Most of the book focuses on areas that the author would be able to consider heroic. Helen Keller is somewhat easy to identify with as a spoiled brat, seeing as many of the book’s intended readers could likely be similarly viewed by uncharitable adults. The struggles made by the subject against her disabilities is something that is inspirational, especially for those who feel as if they have crippling problems that limit their own abilities to succeed in the world. All of this is something worth appreciating, and that alone makes this one of the better books in this series. However, unfortunately, like nearly every other book in the series, it appears that this book suffers from the author’s tendency to believe in celebrity as something that conveys a sense of heroism. Helen Keller would have been heroic without any celebrity status or any meetings with presidents, and that is something this author seems unable to fully understand and grasp with. Hopefully, it is something his readers, young and not-so-young, can understand, though.