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Martin Rising

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While we normally see, on an annual basis, a new crop of picture books about the legendary civil rights leader, there seem to be even more this year in an effort to mark this somber anniversary.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is one of those offerings. It is a collection of free verse poems that clocks in at nearly 130 pages. It’s not a traditionally structured biography, either. Instead, it focuses primarily on the final months of Dr. King’s life, including the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis and his assassination. At the beginning of the book, we go from a poem depicting him as a boy to one where he is celebrating his thirty-ninth birthday with his family. He was 39 when he died. So the book wastes no time establishing that we’ll be taking a look at the dramatic final months of his life.

So, what about these illustrations? Well, I’m a big fan of Pinkney’s work. I love how his lines swoop and spin and curve. I love how he captures movement, in particular. He does all of that here, his signature style on display. His palette is filled with light; yellow dominates. It’s a book that, given the title and that luminescent cover, immediately establishes Dr. King as a sun, a guiding light. But the book is divided into three sections: Daylight, Darkness, and Dawn. So naturally we see the palette darken toward the middle. In the “Darkness” poems — which cover April 3 to April 9, 1968 (he was killed on April 4) — the vibrant yellows and reds darken. Deeper blues and greens creep in — until we reach a spread dominated by blackness. Dr. King has been shot. “His white shirt — splattered red!” Andrea Davis Pinkney writes. Subtle red brushstrokes circle the words. It’s a powerful, chilling moment.

As the illustrator, Brian Pinkney also brings to life the vivid metaphors of the poems, such as (as already mentioned) the notion of King as a sun. The poems also include the turbulent weather of Memphis in the spring of 1968 as a stand-in for the dashed hopes of those fighting for equality, so there are threatening clouds, storms, rain, and swirling winds. Henny Penny is the reader’s guide throughout the book, so Pinkney paints her on the very first spread in quick, thick brushstrokes (O! What Pinkney can capture with just a few lines, right?), and she appears repeatedly throughout the book. And there’s a lot of celestial flight here: for one, Pinkney depicts King’s casket as having brilliant yellow wings. In a poem called “Roar!” Pinkney paints a vicious lion (“In like a lion, / the month of changing seasons / charges ahead”) as well as protesters marching on land that morphs into a bear “trying to fight the grizzly bear of injustice.”

This is a lovingly crafted book (remove the dust jacket for surprises), and I like its breathing room: Pinkney is never one to clutter up a spread. In a closing note, Pinkney writes that he was inspired by abstract expressionists Marc Chagall and Norman Lewis, and those influences are evident here in this book for which, as Rumaan Alan wrote in the New York Times, Pinkney manages to find beauty in such a sad subject.

The question is: will the committee see these illustrations as ones that extend the text (in that unique way that picture book art can do), or will they see this as more of an illustrated book? Do the illustrations do enough of the heavy lifting for the book to be considered, as the criteria state, “a picture book for children”? Or are these merely a series of images that follow the story being told, yet don’t extend the story in any way?

In a comment in this 2013 Calling Caldecott post about picture books vs. illustrated books, Leda Schubert wrote:

When teaching or running mock-Caldecotts or even just talking about the award or picture books, I’ve often turned to Uri Shulevitz’s concise definition in WRITING WITH PICTURES.  ‘A story book [read ‘illustrated book’] tells a story with words. Although the pictures amplify it, the story can be understood without them. The pictures have an auxiliary role, because the words themselves contain images. In contrast, a true picture book tells a story mainly or entirely with pictures. When words are used, they have an auxiliary role. A picture book says in words only what pictures cannot show… It could not, for example, be read over the radio and be understood fully.’

That last phrase says it all.”

This issue (picture books vs. illustrated books) was also discussed here in 2011 (a short post worth reading).

What do you think? Have you seen Martin Rising? Would you define it as a picture book? Is it a book that “essentially provides the child with a visual experience”? If I shared Martin Rising with you now and did not show you the illustrations (Shulevitz’s radio rule, if you will), you would be able to follow it, without a doubt. What do you think of this radio rule of thumb?

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. EMMIE STUART says:

    How am I just now learning about Shulevitz’s radio rule? Brilliant. I’m adding it to my Caldecott presentation…perfect for children and adults!

    Thanks too for illuminating the sun metaphor that is established on the cover. I somehow missed it on my first reading of the book, but (like the radio rule) my reaction is “But of course!”.

  2. Yes Pinkney’s art is unique, with his abstract, propulsive figures taking on metaphorical significance. His style is at the opposite end of the illustrative spectrum of his father, the renowned Jerry Pinkney, who ravishing work embraces the more classical and traditional. I only (finally) got my hands on MARTIN RISING this morning and I was summarily blown away. I am a huge fan of THE FAITHFUL FRIEND and DUKE ELLINGTON, both of which were awarded Caldecott Honors, but SUKEY AND THE MERMAID, CENDRILLON and IN YOUR HANDS among others are admired.

    As to your final question, which of course is the most vital aspect of a brilliant review, I must side with Emmie Stuart (above) though I can’t conclusively opine that the vivid verse can’t stand on its own. Still, It is greatly enriched, enhanced and defined by Pinkney’s transformative art, which is why in the end MARTIN RISING is such an extraordinary collaborative achievement, and one worth of committee study. Powerful stuff across the board. Yellow reigns supreme and with good reason.

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