Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and in honor of the day I decided to look over and review some children's books on his life. I won't claim that these are the best, or even very carefully selected. I did what most kids or parents would do: went to the children's biographies section of the library and picked out the most promising-looking books of what was there (I'm sure there are others that were checked out). I got three rather different books. Here are my thoughts, in brief, on each.
Title: Free At Last: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Author: Angela Bull
Publisher: DK Publishing, 2009. 47 pages.
This is a fairly conventional biography, at about a 3rd grade (8-year-old) reading level. It has sidebars with information about things mentioned in the main text, from slavery to the invention of television, and ample illustrations to engage less-adept readers.
The biography is well-written, and includes the more challenging parts, like Martin's inability to keep the protests from breaking into violence at times, and his own sense of frustration. We see the conflict that divided him from President Johnson over the Vietnam war, and of course read about his assassination. The information is, as far as I can tell, accurate if a bit sanitized.
Title: Martin's Big Words
Author:Doreen Rappaport; illustrated by Bryan Collier
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children, 2001. Unpaginated picture book.
This is a book for younger children, with a nice twist. In addition to the simple text summarizing the highlights of King's life, each page includes a quote from his speeches, Martin's "big words." These are chosen to be understood by children, but have a lot of power in the context; the author has chosen carefully and well.
Bryan Collier illustrated the book with strong images that are a mix of collage and watercolor. All together, this is a beautiful book that is a good introduction to the man and his cause, suitable for children of all ages.
Title: As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom
Author:Richard Michelson; illustrated by Raul Colon
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Unpaginated picture book.
This book takes a little different approach. It begins with the boy Martin, growing up with prejudice and Jim Crow laws, and the efforts of his parents to comfort him about it, and tracks him through the 1955-56 bus boycott, to 1965 when he called for "all of God's children" to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery. At this point, the story switches to Warsaw, Poland, well before WWII, and a young Jewish boy named Abraham Heschel. The author deftly uses parallels (even the exact same words) as Abraham also deals with unreasoning prejudice and laws limiting his freedoms.
Heschel immigrated to the US at the start of the war, and was doing his own marching for justice when Martin put out his call. The book gives us a beautiful image of the two meeting, becoming friends, and marching side by side, at the head of what became 25,000 people on that march. A final page of the book offers a more prosy summation of the key events that followed, through Martin's death to Abraham's.
In many ways, though there are fewer facts and details, I thought this was the best of the three books. The illustrations are good, though not as much to my taste as Collier's (above). But it's the story that did it for me, the reminder that injustice affects all sorts of people and that we need to stand together to fight it. It's a good book for these times.
It doesn't matter what book you chose, but read up on the remarkable life, and the work he did for racial equality, voting rights, and civil rights, because it's all under threat. And it doesn't hurt to take away the message of all standing together for what we know is right.
FTC Disclosure: I checked all three books out of my library, and received nothing from the writers or publishers for my honest reviews. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."