Sunday, March 4, 2012

Annie Sullivan: Miss Spitfire

March 4:  Today's post provided by the Fourth Musketeer

Annie Sullivan
When I was a little girl in the 1960's, there were very few biographies for young people of women throughout history.  One of the few women that I remember reading about was Helen Keller, and I even remember my father saying that she had visited his high school in Minneapolis.  Her beloved teacher, Annie Sullivan, was almost equally famous, and has been selected as one of six honorees of the National Women's History Project in 2012, in recognition of her pioneering leadership in education.  After learning of her receiving this honor, I was curious to learn more about Annie Sullivan, and how she has been depicted in books for young people.

Of course Annie Sullivan is featured in all of the many books about Helen Keller, her famous pupil, but there are several excellent books in print that concentrate on Sullivan herself, with several more about to be released later this year.  

An excellent choice in historical fiction about Sullivan is Miss Spitfire:  Reaching Helen Keller, by Sarah Miller (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007).  Told in the first person, this novel brings Annie Sullivan's feisty character and her story to life for today's readers.  This book received a long list of well-deserved accolades, and is a terrific introduction to Annie Sullivan and her famous pupil.

For those readers looking for nonfiction, perhaps for a biographical report, you couldn't do better than Helen's Eyes:  A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher  by Marfe Ferguson Delano (National Geographic Children's Books, 2008).  Abundantly illustrated with period photographs of Sullivan and Sullivan together with her pupil, this handsome volume provides a comprehensive look at Sullivan's often difficult life.

Annie Sullivan came from a completely different sort of background from Helen Keller, who was from a wealthy family.  Sullivan's parents were poor Irish immigrants, and her father was a drunk who beat Annie.  She began to go blind at around five years old from trachoma, and when her mother died, she and her brother were sent to live in the poorhouse, where her brother died soon after.

When Annie was 14, she got a chance to go to a school for blind children, the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston.  She didn't fit in well with the other children, most of whom came from affluent or middle-class families, and soon was named "Miss Spitfire" for her sharp tongue and fiery temper. She had a brilliant mind, however, and graduated number one in her class.  She nonetheless wondered how she would earn her living.

When the Perkins headmaster received a letter from a gentleman in Alabama in search of a governess for his deaf and blind daughter, Annie Sullivan took the position, which paid a generous $25 per month.  Her breakthrough teaching methods transformed the Keller's wild, willful child into a lovely young girl who inspired people all over the world.   The biography follows Annie's life up until her death in 1936 at the age of 70, with Helen Keller holding her hand.  The book includes an afterword, a timeline, further resources, source notes, and an index.  

Although there are over 100 children's biographies of Helen Keller that come up from a quick search on Amazon, the choices on Annie Sullivan are much more limited.  However, two new notable books on the subject are due to come out later this year.  I am particularly looking forward to a  new picture book, Annie and Helen, by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Raul Colon (Schwartz & Wade, September, 2012). The publisher notes that the book focuses on the relationship between Helen and her teacher, interspersed with excerpts of Annie's letters home, written as she struggled with her wild pupil; the book features "lyrical text and exquisite art."  Given the quality of prior work of both the author and the illustrator, I am confident this will be a "must have" for school and public library collections.  

Another soon-to-be-published book on Annie Sullivan is Joseph Lambert's Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller which comes out at the end of March from Hyperion Books.  Written by an alumnus of the Center for Cartoon Studies, it's a full-color graphic novel rendition of Annie Sullivan's life; although I haven't had a chance to see the book, it's received a starred review from Booklist, and Kirkus calls the book "a visual stunner."    Sounds like another one for my TBR list!

Editor's Note:  

The Fourth Musketeer, aka Margo Tanenbaum, recently finished her master's in library science and hopes to find a full-time position as a children's librarian.  She lives in Claremont, California, with her family and her miniature poodle.  


  1. It's interesting to know that there are many less books about Annie. I'll have to check one out this month and share it with my first graders.

  2. The graphic novel sounds intriguing. I'll have to check it out!

  3. I just found out that Helen Keller used to visit a house in my neighborhood in Newton. The Perkins School for the blind is also nearby. This was a fun connection to make!

    Pragmatic Mom