Helen Keller Toward the Light by Stewart and Polly Anne Graff Book Review

helen keller toward the light

I just finished reading Helen Keller Toward the Light with one of my summer students. She loved it! This is an older book, and I couldn’t find any more recent editions of this biography. Although there are certainly plenty of biographies on Helen Keller out there.

What is unique about this book version is that only 2 brief chapters in the beginning are dedicated to Helen Keller’s childhood. The majority of the book focuses on Helen as an adult. This was a unique perspective for my students who are more familiar with the initial fight between young Helen and new Anne. My student had never known that Helen Keller went to college and traveled the world or that she helped start many schools both for the deaf and for the blind. This book also mentions Laura Bridgman who was really the first known deaf-blind person to be fully educated, not Keller, which shocked my student.

I love this version of the book, because it is specifically written for students who are Deaf. As a result, the sentences were written very simply and the vocabulary was clear. Any difficult words were explained in the story. There is also at least 1 picture in every chapter to visually summarize the main point. It is an excellent high interest-low level read for upper elementary through lower high school students. I give it a full 5 stars! I highly recommend it as an addition to any Deaf literature collection.

What is your favorite Helen Keller biography? Do you discuss Helen Keller or Laura Bridgman in your classroom?

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T4: A Novel by Ann Clare LeZotte

T4

How many of you teach social studies? When you cover World War II, do you discuss the T4 program and the experimentation and attempted extermination of people with deafness?

Every year, I am amazed at my students lack of knowledge about T4. It would seem an easy way to make the Holocaust relatable to our DHH students, yet the majority of my students have no idea that it wasn’t just Jews who were targeted during the war but individuals with disabilities, among other populations.

In my first year teaching, I discovered a fantastic book for a literature connection to my WWII unit. T4: A Novel by Ann Clare Lezotte is a historical fiction YA about a Deaf teen in Germany. Paula was mostly uneducated and isolated by her language that was limited to home signs. When the T4 program begins in Germany, a local priest convinces Paula’s family to send her into hiding. Paula is only distantly aware of the war and why she is leaving her home as she is hidden in one place after another. Along the way, Paula gains communication skills, independence, and confidence she never had when she relied on family to do everything for her. She also meets a young man, Kurt, who is also hiding from the Nazis, but for different reasons. Paula and Kurt develop a deep connection that eventually becomes romantic.

Boys and girls of all ages can find something within this novel to connect to on a personal level while still making those important text to world connection on both a historical and current level. The book is written in free verse form (perfect for April National Poetry Month). It is appropriate for even low-level readers with support and provides plenty of opportunity for grammar/language lessons, poetry lessons, and figurative language identification and discussion. Students gain a different, more personal perspective about the European WWII experience.

I use this book every year, both as part of my ELA classes and my social studies class. I’ve also used this with itinerant students and GED students. It works well for ages 11 and up. Strong readers could read it younger. All my students have had “aha!” moments when reading this book, and most of them really enjoyed it, even if they don’t normally admit to liking books. It is definitely one of the more popular books on my shelves.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. I do wish there was more history included, but Paula’s isolation and lack of awareness prevent too much detail from being included. Other than that, this is a fun, well-written and genuinely powerful book about love and independence under the obstacle of social isolation and war.

Have any of you read this book? What did you think? Please share your opinion and any lesson suggestions.

Deaf Literature in the Classroom

I love reading books about Deaf characters. The number of books that somehow incorporate hearing loss are surprising. It is somehow both more than I expected and less than I expected. I am amazed by the Deaf characters in the sidelines of not-as-popular novels by classic authors: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Lew Wallace, Brian Selznick… (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t a traditional classic author, but he’s certainly a contemporary classic in our classrooms!)

I am always amazed that my students have often never read books containing Deaf characters. If they have, it’s usually children’s books about how it’s okay to be different or trying to encourage our DHH kiddos to wear their hearing aids. I don’t consider these genuine novels, because the whole focus of the story is meant to discuss hearing loss. The books I love are the ones where there just happens to be a Deaf individual appearing, or featured in the story. The author doesn’t make a big deal out of teaching the reader to accept their own hearing loss or that of their classmates. The point isn’t to preach but to entertain.

Do you use books with Deaf characters with your students? I always strive to include these genuine examples of Deaf characters in my literature curriculum. I believe all readers are seeking images of themselves within the pages of what they read. Our students deserve characters that can provide this self-connection.

Here are some of my favorite links to lists of books featuring Deaf characters:

This is certainly not all inclusive. I hope to begin my own list through this blog and would like to feature reviews of some of these books. Are there any you would like to know more about? Please comment with requests for reviews or for titles that meet any criteria you may have in looking for a book. Thanks!