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March on Washington fiftieth anniversary

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. To celebrate, we’ve pulled together some of our favorite fiction and nonfiction books about the march, the speech, and the great man himself.

We MarchIn Shane W. Evans‘s picture book We March, a mother and father rouse their children from bed, pray at their local church, board a bus, march on the Mall, and listen to Dr. King speak at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. Small touches clearly anchor the story within the experiences of a child, while quietly dramatic full-bleed, double-page illustrations bring context to the minimalist text. (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2012)

Kadir 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)

Of 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)

In Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud’s picture book Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend: A Civil Rights Story, Alex asks Miz Pettway why mule Belle is allowed to eat collards from her garden. It turns out Belle is a civil rights hero who helped transport African Americans to vote. She also pulled the wagon holding Dr. King’s coffin through the streets of Atlanta. John Holyfield’s soft acrylics, textured to look antiqued, are effective in illustrating this little-known true story of the civil rights movement. (Candlewick, 2011)

Doreen Rappaport’s text for 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)

In My Dream of Martin Luther King, Faith Ringgold uses a sequence of multilayered dreams to present a personal picture-book biography of the civil rights leader that blends known details from his life with imagined incidents from his childhood. Dr. King’s nonviolent efforts to end segregation come through clearly, and the book’s message becomes more powerful and accessible with repeated readings. (Crown, 1998)

Rosemary L. Bray’s brief, handsomely produced biography Martin Luther King brings a significant era in American history to life for a new generation. The text is focused and sharp, filled with detail yet not overburdened with author commentary. Verbal descriptions are given visual power by Malcah Zeldis’s folk-art-style illustrations on the facing pages, pictures that add a larger-than-life quality suited to Dr. King’s impact on the twentieth century. (Greenwillow, 1997)

James Haskins provides a lucid, in-depth, and moving study of the 1963 march for jobs and freedom, illustrated with black-and-white photographs in The March on Washington. Intriguing details about the logistics of organizing the march — such as transportation, food, and sanitary facilities for the more than 250,000 protesters — are also provided. (HarperCollins, 1993)

Fourteen-year-old Isaac Stone greatly admires Martin Luther King, Jr., and is anxious to participate in the 1963 march on Washington with a group from his church. Isaac’s father, however, feels differently — he will not permit the boy to go. Ossie Davis’s intermediate novel Just like Martin, which delineates the difficulty of maintaining a nonviolent stance in the midst of violence, is an authentic voice of a troubled time in the history of America. (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

Heart and SoulThe unnamed narrator of Kadir Nelson’s graceful and personalized overview of African American history provides a sweeping account from the Colonial era to the present day. Slavery and abolition, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the March on Washington are just a few of the topics covered. Each page of text is accompanied by a magnificent oil painting, forty-seven in all, including six dramatic double-page spreads. The illustrations, combined with the narrative, give a sense of intimacy. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is a tour de force. (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 2011)

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)

For more recommended reading about the civil rights movement, click here.

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.

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