In the last decade, there has been a surge in literature for children that depicts people who have worked for social change. On a recent search for non-fiction picture books that tell the stories of those involved in social activism, I found scores of books - beautifully illustrated multicultural texts. Initially, I was delighted to be able to share these books with kids in my neighborhood and school. But as my collection grew, so did my frustration.
One problem with many of the books is that they stress the individual rather than the larger social movements in which they worked. In his critique of popular portrayals of the Rosa Parks story, educator and author Herb Kohl argues convincingly that her role in the Montgomery bus strike is framed again and again as that of a poor, tired seamstress acting out of personal frustration rather than as a community leader in an organized struggle against racism. [See "The Politics of Children's Literature," p. 37 in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. I]
Picture books frame the stories of many other key community leaders and social activists in similar ways. Activist and educator Patrick Shannon's careful analysis of the underlying social message of books for young readers highlights this important finding: "Regardless of the genre type, the authors of these books promoted concern for self-development, personal emotions, self-reliance, privacy, and competition rather than concern for social development, service to community, cooperation toward shared goals, community, and mutual prosperity" (1988, p. 69).
I first became interested in the activist work of Helen Keller a few years ago when I read James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). Loewen concludes that the way that Helen Keller's life story is turned into a "bland maxim" is lying by omission. When I turned to the many picture books written about her, I was discouraged to discover that books for young children retain that bland flavor, negating the power of her life work and the lessons she herself would hope people would take from it. Here is a woman who worked throughout her long life as a radical advocate for the poor, but she is depicted as a kind of saintly role model for people with handicaps.
For the purposes of this investigation, I chose six picture books published from 1965 through 1997, which are the most readily available from bookstores and websites. Four of the six covers depict the famous moment at the well where Annie, her teacher, spells "water" into Helen's hand. This clichéd moment is the climax of each book, just as it is in the movies made about her life. To most people, Helen remains frozen in time in her childhood. According to these picture books, she is to be remembered for two things after she grew up: her "courage" and her "work with the blind and deaf."