Illustrated by Matt Tavares; Little Brown for Young Readers

An excellent and accessible introduction for young readers to learn about one of the world’s most influential luminaries whose vision for innovation and progress changed America–and the world–forever.


  • ALA Notable Book for Middle Readers
  • Highly Commended, 2013 Charlotte Zolotow Award  © Cooperative Children’s Book Center
  • CCBC Choices : Best-of-the-year.
  • Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award
  • Oppenheim SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Products) Award
  • 2012 ABC Best Books for Children
  • Entertainment Weekly Great New Historical Books For Kids 2012
  • 2012 Nerdy Book Club Nonfiction Picture Book Award
  • 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project
  • Black-Eye Susan Picture Book Award Masterlist
  • Illinois Monarch Award Masterlist
  • California Young Readers Medal


“What is not to love when this pair teams up?!!! A great biography writer with a wonderful illustrator – we hit the jackpot with this one!” – Karen Terlecky, The Nerdy Book Club, (December 2012)

“This picture book biography of Helen Keller celebrates both the accomplishments of Helen Keller in overcoming her world of darkness and silence and those of her teacher Annie Sullivan…Rappaport has somehow condensed the complicated story of Keller’s life into a very readable picture book that has a brisk pace and invites readers to find out more abut this remarkable woman. Tavavares’ illustrations reveal the marvel of Helen Keller’s learning and education.There is light to the images once the learning begins that contrasts with the darkness of her earlier life. Throughout Keller is shown experiencing the senses she does have, from the scent of a rose to the feel of the breeze on her face.”– Tasha Saecker, Assistant Director of the Appleton Library in Appleton, WI. Waking Brain Cells (December 2012)

“One of Helen Keller’s greatest achievements was learning to speak. Rappaport pays tribute to that accomplishment by incorporating Keller’s own words into her prose in the signature style seen in all the author’s children’s biographies, from John Lennon to Martin Luther King, Jr. But the move especially complements this book, where words have such significance. Keller’s story wasn’t just about learning to speak; it was about putting her words to use. There’s no better way to capture that aspiration than seeing the woman herself on the page.”  – Entertainment Weekly (December 2012)

“Helen’s Big World covers the whole span of Helen’s life from birth through her many years with Annie and after. Rappaport characteristically uses quotes to extend and heighten the emotion. A timeline at the end helps put important dates in perspective. Though this book focuses more on Helen than on Annie, readers get a more acute awareness of how much Annie sacrificed for Helen, Tavares’ illustrations are, per the title, big and bold and often in intense close-up. Stirring and awe-inspiring.” — The Horn Book magazine (starred review)

“While there are many books available about Helen Keller for this age group, this title offers a unique and beautiful perspective on her life.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

“Children, who so often feel misunderstood, are by nature drawn to the story of Helen Keller. This magnificent account immerses young readers in the dark lows and subsequent highs of Keller’s story. Rappaport’s text, interspersed with quotations from Keller, is perfectly attuned to the mind of a child. Tavares’s paintings are steeped in emotion, especially in their depiction of young Helen’s anguish and frustration. No child could read this book without imagining herself, as Helen put it, “in the still, dark world in which I lived.” But it makes Helen’s path to self-expression all the more resonant and inspiring.” — The New York Times

“A magisterial account.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Appearing beside broad, horizontal illustrations, Rappaport’s narrative is spaced out in poetic form.  [The] sometimes dramatic illustrations show just how big Helen’s world could be, picturing her in a college classroom, in a tree, on a stage, and in a factory with child laborers. The back endpapers illustrate the alphabet of hand signs that Sullivan taught Keller. Readers intrigued by the Braille alphabet can feel the raised red dots on the jacket, which spell out the book’s title. A worthwhile addition to biography shelves.” — Booklist

Annie put pieces of cardboard with raised dots on different objects. She spelled words in to Helen’s hands as Helen ran her fingers over the dots and touched the objects.
More objects, more dots, more words. Practice, practice
until she read as quickly as sighted children.
Helen Keller, 1908

“Annie pumped water into Helen’s hand and spelled W-A-T-E-R on her other palm.
As Helen felt the cold water, she understood that Annie was spelling the word water.
Her face lit up, and she spelled  W-A-T-E-R again and again.”

“That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, and set it free.”

From the Author’s Note

I remember when I went to the theater and saw the play The Miracle Worker, which focuses on the early relationship between Helen and her teacher Annie Sullivan. The most electrifying moment in the play, and in the biographies of Helen Keller, was always the moment at the water pump, when Helen connected the water flowing over her hand with the word that Annie was spelling into her other hand.

That moment reminds us of how we learn, and the power of learning; the more we understand things, the larger our world becomes.  Annie Sullivan opened up Helen Keller’s limited, dark, silent world; it grew and grew until it truly became a big world.

From the Illustrator’s Note

Helen Keller never saw the ocean or heard the sound of crashing waves. But she could feel the exhilaration of jumping in the water. She could ride in a sailboat, and feel the fluttering in her stomach as the sea rose and fell. She could taste the salty ocean spray, and feel the cold waters as it splashed on her face. I kept this in mind as I illustrated this book, and tried to make sure my pictures focused on all the things she could do, instead of the two things she couldn’t do.

“I love my country. But my love for America is not blind. Perhaps I am more conscious of her faults because I love her so deeply.”

Helen’s Big World, illustration in progress by Matt Tavares



I was honored this month to be interviewed about my books about women by A Mighty Girl, a website of books, toys, movies, clothing and music with positive messages about girls that honors the potential of all girls to grow and become what they choose to become. In other words, to truly become Mighty Girls!

Helen Keller – Her Amazing Story

This video includes footage of Helen at the water pump with Annie Sullivan!

Helen Selsdon, the archivist for The American Foundation for the Blind, asked Doreen Rappaport some questions about Helen Keller and other American women. Click and find out what Doreen said.


I don’t know if you’ve read Deborah Hopkinton’s wonderful new book, Annie and Helen, illustrated by Raul Colon, and published by Schwartz & Wade. I always tell children that everyone is unique and every writer is unique, and we write differently because we are different. Deborah Hopkinton and I love to write about history. When we decided to write about Helen Keller, we took different approaches. Click below and you’ll find out how each of us made our decisions on what and how to write about that amazing woman.

Learn More

Big Words Books, Hyperion Teacher’s Guide

Kids Connect

American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss.

Helen Keller worked for the American Foundation for the Blind for 44 years. She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880, and became deaf and blind at 19 months. Few could have imagined the leading role she would go on to play in many of the significant political, social, and cultural movements of the 20th century. Until her passing in 1968, she worked unceasingly to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Braille Bug – AFB Helen Keller Kids Museum Online
Braille Bug is a kids’ site that teaches sighted children grades 3 through 6 about braille, encourages literacy. Includes a biography of Louise Braille, the 12-year-old who created braille – the code that changed the world of reading and writing forever.

Helen Keller California Young Readers Medal Play
Click Here to read


Return to Big Word Biographies or Return to Celebrating Women’s History