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Martin Luther King Jr. Day reading

Martin Luther King Jr. Day provides an opportunity to reflect not only on the life of the great civil rights leader, but also on how far we’ve come — and how far we still have to go. Below are some recommended books about Dr. King’s legacy to share and discuss. What are your favorite books about Dr. King and the civil rights movement?


my brother martinOf the many stories about Dr. King, none is as personal and revealing as My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a memoir-tribute by his older sister Christine King Farris. Starting with early family reminiscences, King Farris captures the drama of a life that would lead to the “I Have a Dream” speech. The brilliance of Chris Soentpiet’s realistic illustrations, the placement of the precise text, and the oversize format make this a dramatic contribution. A poetic tribute by Mildred D. Johnson, an afterword, and an illustrator’s note are included. (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

My Uncle Martin's Words for AmericaChristine King Farris’s daughter Angela Farris Watkins, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., shares her own memories of Dr. King and provides background on the civil rights movement in My Uncle Martin’s Words for America. Her text incorporates King’s own words and explains them in context (“Uncle Martin said, ‘Let justice roll down like waters.’ He meant that everyone should be treated fairly”). Eric Velasquez’s illustrations include close-up portraits and crowd scenes, all conveying the movement’s scope. (Abrams, 2011)

martin's big wordsThe text of Doreen Rappaport’s Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a mix of finely honed biographical narrative and appropriate quotes from King himself, emphasizing the concept that from his youth Martin had sought to inspire others with his words. The essential events of King’s life are presented in a straightforward yet moving style. The facts are extended by Bryan Collier‘s breathtaking collage illustrations. A chronology and informative notes from author and illustrator are appended. (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 2001)

michelson_as good as anybodyAbraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi born in Eastern Europe, becomes a stalwart friend to Martin Luther King Jr. as the Baptist preacher urges America toward new standards of equality and freedom. In As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom by Richard Michelson, readers first meet King as a young boy, then Heschel; their shared story later unfolds. Raul Colón portrays the two leaders in swirling, textured colored-pencil and watercolor illustrations. (Knopf, 2003)

pinkney_martin & mahaliaAndrea Davis Pinkney‘s Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song relates the way “Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahalia Jackson combined their respective vocal gifts to form an unshakeable ribbon of faith.” A visual representation of that faith, a series of banners with directions (e.g., “This way to freedom”) create a frame for each of Brian Pinkney‘s illustrations, while words from both King and singer Jackson provide context for the uplifting text. Notes from the author and illustrator and a discography are appended. (Little, Brown, 2013)

carson_what was your dream, dr. king

Mary Kay Carson’s What Was Your Dream, Dr. King?: And Other Questions About Martin Luther King Jr. [Good Question! series] uses a question-and-answer format to relate the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the civil rights movement. Brief but sufficient explanations are given to questions related to segregation, nonviolent protests, the March on Washington, the importance of Dr. King’s philosophy, his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, and his assassination. Illustrations by Jim Madsen accompany the insightful text. (Sterling, 2013)

bunting_cart that carried martinAt his funeral, Martin Luther King Jr.’s casket was carried in a borrowed wooden farm cart pulled by two mules. It’s a humble image, but the throngs of people lining the streets to pay their respects reflects Dr. King’s great work and legacy. Eve Bunting’s simple, poetic prose in The Cart that Carried Martin follows the cart’s slow, sad procession; Don Tate’s somber, handsome gouache illustrations are a perfect accompaniment.

mcnamara_martin luther king jr. dayWhile learning about Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. Connor’s first graders illustrate their own dreams to make the world a better place: no more fighting, a clean planet, everyone having fun. Margaret McNamara’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day [Ready-to-Read: Robin Hill School series] is a simple and age-appropriate introduction to Martin Luther King Jr. Day for beginning readers (though no substantial details about MLK are provided). Mike Gordon’s warm cartoons show the kids’ great aspirations. (Simon/Aladdin, 2007)



i have a dreamKadir Nelson brings to life Dr. King’s famous speech in the superlative oil paintings of I Have a Dream. He begins with Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial addressing the crowd; literal illustrations of his words (e.g., his “four little children”) follow. Visually, this is a stunning accomplishment that embodies the thrilling inspiration of Dr. King’s words. The complete text of the speech is appended and an accompanying CD allows readers to hear the speech themselves. (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 2012)



I See the Promised LandArthur Flowers’s I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. uses an innovative design to blend African griot storytelling and folk art from India to create a bold graphic homage to Dr. King for young adults. Manu Chitrakar’s illustrations, drawn in the style of Patua scroll painters (a combination of sequential and performance art), recast the story with a distinctively Indian flair. There is a creative symbiosis between the seemingly disparate elements, which reminds us that the civil rights movement is but one chapter in the story of global human rights. (Groundwood, 2013)

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.



  1. Wonderful and passionate round-up here Katie! I read to a class of first graders this past Friday, and as annual custom I went with the exquisite Rappaport-Collier book, which frankly should have won the Caldecott Medal over David Wiesner’s THE THREE PIGS in the year of their release. Mind you I love Wiesner and thought TUESDAY and FLOTSAM were deserving, but his middle winner is overrated, methinks, but either way MARTIN’S BIG WORDS should be sporting the gold instead of the still-very-nice silver. Your presentation here is authoritative and inspired. I am a big fan of MY BROTHER MARTIN, and the books by Kadir Nelson and the Pinkneys, and feel they all would be well-employed in a classroom discussion or multiple-reading session. I know the others here too, though I haven’t yet acquired copies.

    Thanks so much for the wonderfully penned round-up of all the great books out there on this iconic American.

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