You’ve heard of Helen Keller, but do you know Belle? Helen Keller’s Best Friend Belle by Holly M. Barry is a furry tale (tail?) about Helen’s adventures with her childhood friend, an old setter named Belle. This children’s book is basically a diluted version of Arthur Penn’s 1962 biopic, The Miracle Worker. The readers are introduced to Helen at birth and quickly learn that an illness leaves her completely deaf and blind before she reaches her 2nd birthday. From that point on, her world is filled with soundless darkness that only her dogs can comfort her in for the next few years.
To visually explain this gloomy situation, the illustrator depicts Helen’s world with dim watercolor drawings. Then when her teacher Anne Sullivan is introduced, a vibrant light punctures the darkened illustrations, thereby brightening Helen’s world. This visual theme of a brightening world continues for Helen throughout the book. So we follow Helen on her journey as Anne fails miserably at teaching Helen how to finger spell in the palm of her hand. Until one day Helen finally starts to grasp what all of the hand signals Anne’s been force feeding her mean—from doll to water, and yes, even puppies!
From that point on, Helen’s world is so bright on the page that it’s practically glowing. She even decides to teach this language (American Sign Language) to one of her closest four-legged companions, Belle, by spelling the words in her paw. While Belle never did quite figure it out, she sure did love the attention! Helen and Belle continue to explore Helen’s new world together. They learn more words, explore the woods, and just enjoy each other’s company. But before long, Helen must leave Belle behind and attend a special school for the deaf where she eventually learns how to speak using her voice.
It’s a breakthrough moment for Helen that’s filled with so much joy that she can hardly wait to express herself to her best friend in the world. Despite that sentiment, the story ends abruptly—and you may not even realize it—when Helen returns home and calls for Belle for the first time ever after relearning to speak. It’s clearly meant to be a heartwarming moment in story land, but you and your child are more likely to be left confused since the climactic moment is buried on a page that isn’t even the last page in the book.
In fact, two mini biographies, with children’s illustrations to add to the confusion, are included immediately after Helen and Belle’s story, further throwing off the tone of the book. While it’s nice to offer additional background on an historical character, the placement in this picture book is just completely off. (To avoid confusing the actual ending, make sure you read the book for the first time alone so you can adjust your tone and tempo when reading aloud to your child.)
So in actuality, my favorite part of this book isn’t found within the story itself, but rather on its covers: the illustrations of the American Sign Language finger spellings (aka American Manual Alphabet). To me, this offers the strongest enrichment in the book. The ASL illustrations provide parents with a fun opportunity to teach their children how to manually spell simple words mentioned in the book, such as D-O-G or B-E-L-L-E, for example.
Overall, the book shares a nice, albeit slightly rushed story of how Helen’s dogs, especially Belle, helped her with her disability. They were the silent support system she needed—furry shoulders to cry on when no one else seemed to understand what she was going through.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 4-9
Reviewer: Kaitlyn Wells