Everyone knows the story of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who was able to communicate through finger signs with the help of her teacher. But what if her teacher, or finger signs in general, had not been available? In the early 1800’s to be Deaf in the United States was to be essentially cut off from the rest of the world. There was no American Sign Language, so communication was limited to a few dozen “home signs” that each individual worked out with his or her family. There was no Deaf education movement, so many of the Deaf, dismissed as handicapped or unteachable, were simply left out of the educational process.
During this time Alice Cogswell, a little Deaf girl, met up with a neighbor, preacher Thomas Gallaudet. He was intrigued by Alice’s keen mind, evident to him despite the barriers between them. He taught her to read, much to her delight. Alice’s father, a wealthy doctor, offered to send Thomas to Great Britain and France. These countries had developed programs for teaching the Deaf, and Dr. Cogswell hoped that Thomas could bring their ideas to America. Although it was not what he had originally intended to do with his life, Thomas agreed. After being rebuffed in Great Britain, he went to France, and returned with Laurent Clerc. The two young men established the first school for the Deaf in the US. When dozens of children and young adults came to study at the Conneticut Asylum, they developed the language that would eventually be called American Sign Language.
This picture book presentation of the facts uses Alice as a entry point into the course of events. The impact of Thomas on her life, and later his absence as he journeys to Europe, provide an emotional anchor point to which the historical facts can be attached. Actual excerpts from Alice’s letters to Thomas Gallaudet are included throughout, a wonderful use of primary resources in a picture book. The author’s note mentions the unorthodox grammar and syntax of her letters being a result of the fact that she was combining words she had learned separately, without the benefit of having heard language spoken naturally. It would have been nice to see this mentioned elsewhere, since not all children will go on to read the author’s note, and it would be a shame if they mistook the subtly odd way of writing for a lack of intelligence, when, in fact, it is a sign of the opposite that Alice was able to communicate clearly at all.
This book fills a gap in most collections, and one that I suspect many children will be intrigued by. The fascination with Helen Keller many children exhibit is hard to pair with other books, since there is so little literature available for children about the history of the Deaf.