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Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller
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Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller

4.3 33
by Sarah Miller

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Annie Sullivan was little more than a half-blind orphan with a fiery tongue when she arrived at Ivy Green in 1887. Desperate for work, she’d taken on a seemingly impossible job—teaching a child who was deaf, blind, and as ferocious as any wild animal. But if anyone was a match for Helen Keller, it was the girl who’d been nicknamed Miss Spitfire.


Annie Sullivan was little more than a half-blind orphan with a fiery tongue when she arrived at Ivy Green in 1887. Desperate for work, she’d taken on a seemingly impossible job—teaching a child who was deaf, blind, and as ferocious as any wild animal. But if anyone was a match for Helen Keller, it was the girl who’d been nicknamed Miss Spitfire. In her efforts to reach Helen’s mind, Annie lost teeth to the girl’s raging blows, but she never lost faith in her ability to triumph. Told in first person, Annie Sullivan’s past, her brazen determination, and her connection to the girl who would call her Teacher are vividly depicted in this powerful novel.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Amy Fiske
In this debut novel, Miller departs from the known Keller story, imagining instead the emotional terrain of Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan. Readers join Annie as she boards a train bound for Alabama and the Kellers. She spends her journey haunted alternately by horrific childhood memories and anxiety-filled visions of her future. Arriving in Alabama half-mad with grief and fear, she finds a family on the brink of collapse, under the control of a blind and deaf, pint-sized, feral tyrant. Not only must she find a way to reach Helen, but she must also convince the Kellers to treat Helen like a real child rather than an afflicted pet. Helen and her family do not go quietly. Readers follow Annie's emotional struggle to teach Helen obedience first, and then letters and words, and finally understanding. Along the way, the two lost individuals discover self-identity, love, and trust. The friendship will last a lifetime. Drawing on historical documentation, Miller crafts a fascinating work of fiction. Her rendering of Annie is based on letters that Annie wrote to a friend while staying with the Kellers. Also lending authenticity is a lengthy list of sources consulted; however, Miller goes well beyond history. She delves into the hearts and minds of her subjects, creating realistic, believable characters. The Kellers's love mingled with despair, Annie's loneliness and her terror of failure, and Helen's frustration and the overwhelming joy of her breakthrough are palpable. Miller brings history to life.
Children's Literature - Karen Leggett
"How am I to teach Helen what language is, when words themselves have no scent, taste, or texture?" Anne Sullivan worries constantly about how she will teach Helen Keller and whether she can. This novel is a rare glimpse into the thoughts and emotions that Sullivan—Miss Spitfire—might have had as she approached the challenge that would earn her the name "miracle worker." Written as a first person account, this journal-style novel tells us about Sullivan's abusive father, the close relationship she had with her invalid brother Jimmie, and the horrible years they spent together in a poorhouse. There are frequent flashbacks to the events of her childhood, which is often confusing, but they do help explain Sullivan's yearning for Helen's affection, and especially her touch. It seems to take a very long time for the novel to reach the familiar point of Helen's "sudden" understanding of words and their meaning, and there are many pages of anger and struggle. Yet overall this is an innovative way to approach an alternative view of the Helen Keller story.
KLIATT - Janis Flint-Ferguson
This novel retells the events that took place when Annie Sullivan arrived in Alabama from Massachusetts to teach deaf, blind Helen Keller. While it covers much of the same storyline as the play The Miracle Worker, it is also an accessible narrative for YA readers who are unfamiliar with the story of Helen Keller and the remarkable events that led her to become a celebrity in her day. Annie Sullivan is responsible for many of Helen's accomplishments. Despite her own poor eyesight, Annie works tirelessly with young Helen trying to help Helen learn language. But Helen has been treated more like a pet than a child and responds violently at times. Relying on the methods of Dr. Howe of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, Annie finally gets the Kellers to allow her to live in a small cottage on the estate, makes Helen dependent on her, and then uses that dependency in teachable moments. She is supported in her efforts by Helen's aunt, as Helen's own parents are unable to provide the discipline Helen needs to learn manners and to discover how to communicate. Amazing her family, Helen learns both and goes on to college, with Annie at her side. Readers will appreciate Annie's devotion to her pupil and how her tenacity makes a difference in the young girl's life.
School Library Journal

Gr 5-9
Filled with the tension, animosity, and determination that Annie Sullivan felt upon meeting Helen Keller, this novel portrays that most important month in their relationship, March 1887. The story is told through Annie's voice, and it begins as she travels by train from Boston to Tuscumbia, AL. The child she has been hired to teach is both deaf and blind, and there is only one previous case study that suggests that the six-year-old will ever be able to learn. As the story unfolds, readers see that strong-willed Annie is just the person to take on this formidable task. Her anger at Helen for her contrary ways is matched only by her disgust at the Kellers for allowing the girl to control everyone in the family and have her way. The incident during which Helen breaks a tooth in Annie's mouth with a well-placed punch is vividly recounted, and readers have great sympathy for the teacher's desire to get even. In spite of her own temper, the fierce love Annie feels, almost immediately, for Helen, is evident throughout. Although the flashbacks describing Annie's life before she arrived at the Kellers' interferes at times with the story's momentum, this excellent novel is compelling reading even for those familiar with the Keller/Sullivan experience. Children encountering them for the first time will feel an overwhelming sense of wonder and delight when Annie helps Helen make a communication breakthrough.
—Wendy Smith-D'ArezzoCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Why is the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan so enthralling? Is it that they found success in the seemingly impossible struggle shared at some level by all young people: to articulate one's true thoughts and feelings? If so, then debut author Miller nails her audience with this fictionalized account of the first few weeks of Helen and Annie's acquaintance, leading up to the breakthrough scene at the water pump. Details drawn from Annie's letters and Helen's autobiography are fleshed out engagingly in the first-person voice of Miller's imagined Annie, the young "spitfire" who overcomes obstacles no matter the power of the adults in her life. Acknowledging the presumption of writing someone else's story, Miller provides resources to allow the reader to seek out more. Should young readers bother with fiction in this case, when so much biographical material is available? It's hard to argue with Miller, as she sticks so close to the documented story while giving readers a good dose of the melodrama that makes it so appealing, a craving for more and the direction to find it. (author's note, photographs, chronology, bibliography) (Fiction. 9-14)
From the Publisher
"This moving story—for all ages—is about how Anne an underprivileged young woman awoke Helen Keller, the most famous woman of her time, to life and learning. Miss Spitfire is high drama about how language unlocks the world.”
—Richard Peck, author of the Newbery Medal–winner A Year Down Yonder

* "Miller's accomplished debut imagines Annie Sullivan's first experiences with her famous pupil, Helen Keller… encouraging readers to think about the small miracles of connection they can accomplish with words every day."
Booklist, starred review

"Details drawn from Annie's letters and Helen's autobiography are fleshed out engagingly in the first-person voice of Miller's imagined Annie, the young "spitfire" who overcomes obstacles no matter the power of the adults in her life."
Kirkus Reviews

"Children encountering [Annie and Helen] for the first time will feel an overwhelming sense of wonder and delight when Annie helps Helen make a communication breakthrough. School Library Journal Readers will appreciate Annie's devotion to her pupil and how her tenacity makes a difference in the young girl's life."

"Miller brings history to life."

Product Details

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)
890L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Miss Spitfire

Reaching Helen Keller
By Sarah Miller


Copyright © 2007 Sarah Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416925422

Chapter One

The man who sold us that ticket ought to be hanged, and I'd be willing to act as hangman.


"Ticket, please."

I wipe at my eyes and thrust the wretched thing at him. I've already had to change trains six times since Boston. On top of that, I have to take this train north to Knoxville to catch yet another train south to Alabama.

The conductor examines the ticket and punches it. Instead of returning it, he lingers over my shoulder. With a sniff I try to smother my tears before my handkerchief soaks up all my dignity.

"You all right, miss?" he asks.

I glance up at him and nod. He doesn't budge. He only stares. I can see him thinking it. Everyone who meets me thinks it, whether they say it or not.

She'd be pretty if it weren't for those eyes.

Sometimes I wonder if it was worth all those operations. What good is being able to see if everyone who looks at me has to force the disgust from their lips at the sight of my poor eyes? And what a sorry sight they are -- red and swollen, as if I were a demon straight from the underworld. There wasn't much good in being half blind and cross-eyed, either; but at least I couldn't see people staring at me.

"Is somethingwrong?" I snap at him. I can't help myself -- my eyes smart with coal dust, I'm sweating in my woolen dress, and my patience is worn raw as my feet after tramping through Washington, DC, in too-tight new shoes.

He blinks in surprise. "No, ma'am. It's just you've been crying since we pulled outta Chattanooga. I thought maybe one of your folks was dead."

I don't know how to answer him. Most all of them are dead, and the living ones might as well be, for all they care about me. Even the dead ones aren't worth a tear.

Except for Jimmie.

"No, I'm going to Alabama. To teach."

He brightens. "Well, isn't that nice! I've got a cousin lives down that way. You'll like it there." He reaches into his pocket. "Peppermint?"

"I've never been outside of Massachusetts," I whimper, cringing all the while at the attention I've drawn.

"Oh, I shouldn't worry about that. Southerners are good people, real kind. Famous for our hospitality." He winks and holds the handful of candy still and steady, like I'm a sparrow he's trying to tame. I pick a small one and drop it into my pocket.

"Thank you."

"Go on, have another."

His voice makes the words soft and lazy -- I like the way he says "anutha." Against my better judgment I concede a smile and take a larger piece.

"There, now. That wasn't so bad, was it?"

I shake my head.

"I see plenty of people come down here from up north. Stiff and prim as whitewashed fence pickets, every one of 'em. We smooth 'em out, though. Sunshine and country cooking turns 'em all bright and rosy in no time. Why, my mother used to put brown sugar in near about everything she made." He pats his sides. The cloth round his waistcoat buttons puckers. "Didn't do me any good around the middle, but we all grew up sweet and gentle as milch cows."

As he speaks, I mop my sooty eyes, only half listening. He takes it for more tears, I suppose.

"You'll make a fine teacher," he insists in that frantic way men get when a woman cries.

"I don't want to teach," I hiccup. That stops him cold for a second, then he's off again, prattling on about his sister-in-law who's a teacher, how it'll grow on me, and how I should give it a chance. Then he winks and says the most ridiculous thing of all: "Some of the boys might be sweet on you."

I have half a mind to tell him I have no training and I'd rather be selling books door-to-door, or even washing dishes at Mrs. D's Kitchen in Boston, thank you very much. I won't have a classroom, either, only one pupil -- a six-year-old girl both deaf and blind. What would he say to that, I wonder? But he's trying to be kind to me, and I know that's no easy task. I

swallow my temper and unwrap one of the peppermints. Its cool sting helps ease the thickness in my throat.

"Thank you," I tell him. What I mean is Go away.

"That's better, isn't it?" he says, as if he's talking to a child. "Would you like a sandwich?"

I look him square in the eye, making the words firm and distinct: "No. Thank you."

He hovers a moment longer, then finally seems to sense I'd like it very much if he left me alone. "All right, then. You enjoy the ride, now."

Enjoy the ride. I wish he hadn't said that. So far I've managed not to remember the last time I rode a train.

Suddenly I'm nine years old again.

My mother is dead and my drunken lout of a father is too busy giving the Irish a bad name to be bothered with his own children. Aunt Ellen snatches up cuddly, healthy baby Mary, but my brother and I are a problem. Jimmie's sickly and crippled; I'm mostly blind and surly as a wildcat. Finally we're dropped into the reluctant hands of Uncle John and his wife, Anastasia. After a few months of my rages and Jimmie's frailty, their Christian charity runs out.

One day a carriage appears in the yard.

Uncle John lifts Jimmie onto the seat, his voice dripping with false cheer. He tells us we're going to have a ride on a train, and won't that be grand?

He doesn't tell us where the train is going. Or why no one else is coming.

I turn suspicious when Aunt Stasia tries to kiss me. She's never shown us any affection before, and I won't have it now. I twist my head away, and she dries her tears on her apron as if I've finally given her reason to hate me. "You might at least be a good girl on the last day," she sniffs as Uncle John hoists me into the seat next to Jimmie. My skin prickles for an instant at that, "the last day," but Uncle John makes such a fuss about shining locomotives and soft velvet seats that I forget to be afraid.

As the carriage rattles away down the road, one of the cousins calls out, "Enjoy the ride!"

Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Miller


Excerpted from Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Miller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sarah Miller began writing her first novel at 10 years old, and has spent half her life working in libraries and bookstores. She is the author of Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, which was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and nominated for numerous state award lists. Sarah lives in Michigan with her family. Visit her online at sarahmillerbooks.com.

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Miss Spitfire 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought that it was interesting. Good for historical themed book reports.
GreekVampireMagic16 More than 1 year ago
This book touched, amazed, humored, and even saddened a child like me. this story was so touching and inspirational that i want to read it again and again. you will get so sucked into the book that finally it will sadly dawn on you that it is ending. it is a truly great book. this author portrayed it nicely with intresting twists and excitements. i will certainly be reading this book again!
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
While most people have at least heard of Helen Keller, few know much about her teacher, the dedicated and passionate Annie Sullivan. Sarah Miller's MISS SPITFIRE may change that. The novel gives a fictionalized but well-researched narrative, in Annie's own voice, of the first month Annie spent with Helen. Her struggle to reach this wild, blind, and deaf child and overcome the obstacles presented by Helen's family makes a riveting read.

Miller delves deeply into her subject, letting readers in on Annie's early life through memories and flashbacks--of her abusive father, of the horrible years she spent at a state almshouse, and of the better but still difficult years in a school for the blind. Readers will find it easier to sympathize with and relate to her loneliness and longing for affection. It's wonderful to see the parts of her personality that had long been considered flaws--her stubbornness, her fierce temper--become assets in dealing with Helen. More than just a historical figure, in MISS SPITFIRE Annie Sullivan becomes a fully realized human being.

It's clear from the novel that Annie's success didn't come easily. It details every setback and every triumph, no matter how minor, until readers will be racing through the pages waiting to see how she will finally break through to Helen. They may be a little disappointed to discover that the novel ends shortly after that major breakthrough, wishing to read on and continue the journey with Annie. A sequel would certainly be welcome!

MISS SPITFIRE is everything a historical novel should be--richly imagined, true to its period, and providing an engaging story that will feel completely relevant to modern readers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a compelling and fascinating read and I couldn't put it down. So well written! I am very familiar with the story of Helen Keller but this book added an amazing new dimension. The author was able to make me feel as if I was right at Annie Sullivan's shoulder. As a former teacher I can see MISS SPITFIRE could be a valuable tool to teach students about disability and how our society views those who are considered different.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a story that most of us know but Ms. Miller tells it with a different flair!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a book my eyes didnt want to leave for long. So interesting was this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Captivating and intense, it is worth your time. The early history of Hellen Keller is told flawlessly through the eyes of Annie Sullivan.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the best biography EVER! I love fantasy, but this book is fantastic. Anne Sullivan never gives up on teaching Helen to communicate. You must read this book.
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This is a great book. A great, easy read for everyone.
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Amy Eden More than 1 year ago
Really amazing, this book got me so into Helen Keller and biographies in general. THIS BOOK IS ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING BOOKS I HAVE EVER READ!!!!!!! DOWNLOAD THIS AND YOU WILL BE HAPPY!!!!! It's not for the adventure-action-fantasy type people, but it's an absolutley beautiful book I LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Raymond Orloski More than 1 year ago
This is the best book. It truly gives you the chance to see the world how she did. Her teacher's struggles were also just as great as Helens.
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Abby Graham More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book! I read it again and again!
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