Books for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Perhaps now more than ever, 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 very far we still have to go. Read this Boston Globe Magazine article by picture book author and Friend of the Horn Book Francie Latour.

Below is an updated list of recommended books about Dr. King's life and legacy (all reviewed and recommended at the time of their publication by The Horn Book Magazine and The Horn Book Guide). Read our Publishers' Previews: Diverse Books Redux interview: Five Questions for Jerry Pinkney about A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation and watch Roger's video Talks with Roger interview with Andrea Davis Pinkney about Martin Rising: Requiem for a King. Be sure to catch up with our May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine special issue celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

 

Primary

Bunting, Eve  The Cart That Carried Martin
32 pp. | Charlesbridge 2013 | Trade ISBN 978-1-58089-387-9

Illustrated by Don Tate. At 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 reflect Dr. King's great work and legacy. Bunting's simple, poetic prose follows the cart's slow, sad procession; Tate's somber, handsome gouache illustrations are a perfect accompaniment.

Carson, Mary Kay  What Was Your Dream, Dr. King?: And Other Questions About Martin Luther King Jr.
32 pp. | Sterling 2013 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4027-9622-7

Good Question! series. Illustrated by Jim Madsen. Using a question-and-answer format, Carson relates 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 accompany the insightful text. Timeline.

Duncan, Alice Faye  Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968
40 pp. | Boyds/Calkins 2018 | Trade ISBN 978-1-62979-718-2

Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike is not often covered in picture books, despite its being Dr. King's final march before his assassination. In a poignant mix of poetry and prose, fictional child Lorraine Jackson shares her family's story of resistance as she helped her sanitation-worker father fight for fair wages and safer working conditions. Christie's rich gouache paintings illustrate the honest portrayal of an intense historical moment. Timeline. Bib.

Kelley, Kitty  Martin's Dream Day
40 pp. | Atheneum 2017 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4814-6766-7 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-4814-6767-4

Photographs by Stanley Tretick. This book pulls back the curtain on the 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, using iconic documentary images by photojournalist Tretick to show MLK, other civil rights leaders, and ordinary citizens on the historic day from a new, you-are-there angle. Candids, panoramas, negatives, and portraits are among the photograph types that help tell the story alongside the well-written text. Websites.

King Farris, Christine  My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
40 pp. | Simon 2003 | Trade ISBN 0-689-84387-9

Illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. Of the many stories about Dr. King, none is as personal and revealing as this memoir-tribute by his older sister. 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 the realistic illustrations, the placement of the precise text, and the oversize format make this a dramatic contribution. With a poetic tribute by Mildred D. Johnson, an afterword, and an illustrator's note.

Meltzer, Brad  I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.
40 pp. | Dial 2016 | Trade ISBN 978-0-525-42852-7

Ordinary People Change the World series. Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. From childhood anecdotes through the March on Washington, the scope of King's struggles and accomplishments is conveyed. There's some gentle moralizing ("it's better to have more love in your life than more hate"), but it's well delivered via this biography series' child-friendly setup: a chatty first-person narrative and cartoon art with occasional comics-style frames. Photos are appended. Reading list, timeline. Bib.

Michelson, Richard  As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom
40 pp. | Knopf 2008 | Trade ISBN 978-0-375-83335-9 | Library ISBN 978-0-375-93335-6

Illustrated by Raul Colón. Abraham 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 this story, readers first meet King as a young boy, then Heschel; their shared story later unfolds. The swirling, textured colored-pencil and watercolor illustrations.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis  Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song
40 pp. | Little 2013 | Trade ISBN 978-0-316-07013-3

Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. "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 illustration, while words from both King and singer Jackson provide context for the uplifting text. Author and illustrator notes and discography are appended. Timeline. Reading list.

Rappaport, Doreen  Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
40 pp. | Hyperion/Jump 2001 | Trade ISBN 0-7868-0714-8 | Library ISBN 0-7868-2591-X

Illustrated by Bryan Collier. The text 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 breathtaking collage illustrations. A chronology and informative notes from author and illustrator are included. Bib.

Watkins, Angela Farris  Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Six Guiding Beliefs
32 pp. | Simon 2015 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4169-8693-5

Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. Colorful mixed-media art illustrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s six guiding beliefs, focusing on peace-filled love over violence. Watkins, King's niece, cites specific examples of victorious actions, including the desegregation of Montgomery, Alabama, buses and his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," explaining with "love and respect" the importance of the fight for equality. The foundation of King's philosophy will resonate with all ages.

Watkins, Angela Farris  My Uncle Martin's Big Heart
32 pp. | Abrams 2010 | Trade ISBN 978-0-8109-8975-7

Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Watkins's narrative provides a warm and intimate glimpse into the life of "Uncle M.L.," Martin Luther King Jr., as a gentle and fun-loving man spending time with his family. Young readers will delight in the laughter, the teasing, the indulgence allowed during church service, etc. Warm-hued paintings capture the spirit of the man at work and at rest.

Watkins, Angela Farris  My Uncle Martin's Words for America
40 pp. | Abrams 2011 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4197-0022-4

Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Watkins, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., provides background on the civil rights movement. 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"). Velasquez's illustrations include close-up portraits and crowd scenes, all conveying the movement's scope. Reading list. Bib., glos., ind.

Weatherford, Carole Boston  Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and You
40 pp. | Bloomsbury 2018 | Trade ISBN 978-0-8027-2368-0 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-68119-195-9

Illustrated by James E. Ransome. Weatherford's simple, meditative approach to distilling the work of Martin Luther King Jr. uses significant moments in his story to encourage kids to "be a King" through acts of kindness, justice, and bravery. Ransome's painterly illustrations (in oil, acrylic, colored pencil, and gouache) alternate images of King milestones with scenes of modern schoolchildren. An appended author's note provides deeper biographical information.

 

Intermediate

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  I Have a Dream
32 pp. | Random/Schwartz & Wade 2012 | Trade ISBN 978-0-375-85887-1 | Library ISBN 978-0-375-95887-8

Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. In superlative oil paintings, Nelson brings to life this famous speech. 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; accompanying CD included.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis  Martin Rising: Requiem for a King
128 pp. | Scholastic 2018 | Trade ISBN 978-0-545-70253-9 | Ebook ISBN 978-0-545-70254-6

Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. After establishing Martin Luther King Jr.'s characteristics, even in childhood, that would compel him to fight oppression, the poetic narrative jumps to King's thirty-ninth birthday. The remaining poems detail what transpired between February 1968, when sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, and April 1968, when King was assassinated. Swirling watercolor, gouache, and India-ink illustrations give life and movement to King's story. Timelines. Bib.

Wittenstein, Barry  A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation
48 pp. | Holiday/Porter 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-0-8234-4331-4 | Ebook ISBN  978-0-8234-4374-1

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. This superbly executed picture book takes readers behind the scenes of the writing of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The text — propulsive and suspenseful — follows King as he labored through the night. As he stepped up to the podium, at the urging of Mahalia Jackson, he put aside his prepared remarks and preached. Pinkney’s loose-lined pencil and watercolor-washed illustrations, with some collage elements, are beautifully contemplative. Bib. 

 

Older

Flowers, Arthur  I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
156 pp. | Groundwood 2013 | Trade ISBN 978-1-55498-328-5

Illustrated by Manu Chitrakar. This book uses an innovative design to blend African griot storytelling and folk art from India to create a bold graphic homage to Dr. King. The illustrations, drawn in the style of Patua scroll painters (a combination of sequential and performance art), recast the story with a distinctively Indian flair.

Murphy, Claire Rudolf  Martin and Bobby: A Journey Toward Justice
176 pp. | Chicago 2018 | Trade ISBN 978-1-64160-010-1| Ebook ISBN 978-1-64160-013-2

Fifty years after their assassinations, Dr. King's and Robert Kennedy's battles for social justice are placed in moving parallel. The dual biographic account centers on April 4, 1968, when presidential candidate RFK announced news of MLK's death to an Indianapolis crowd. The narrative, with tragic and sometimes religious tones, uses many primary sources. An epilogue acknowledges that the issues these men fought for are still ongoing. Timeline, websites. Bib., ind.

Stone, Nic  Dear Martin
211 pp. | Crown 2017 | Trade ISBN 978-1-101-93949-9 | Library ISBN 978-1-101-93950-5| Ebook ISBN 978-1-101-93951-2

Black seventeen-year-old Justyce experiences police violence and his prep school classmates assume his Yale acceptance is because of affirmative action, yet his neighbors call him a "race-traitor." Justyce's letters to Martin Luther King Jr., alternating with the main narrative, are an effective device: what would Dr. King think about recent headlines that inspired the novel? Stone avoids easy resolutions and lets hope reside in unexpected places.

Swanson, James L.  Chasing King's Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin
373 pp. | Scholastic 2018 | Trade ISBN 978-0-545-72333-6

Swanson's expertly researched and -written account of King's legacy and assassination also explores how James Earl Ray became the man who killed the civil rights leader. Detailed maps and records are used to trace Ray's flight and eventual apprehension. Numerous archival photographs and large-font captions will draw even reluctant readers into this well-documented narrative. Extensive notes and sources are included. Bib., ind.

 

Poetry

Lewis, J. Patrick & Lyon, George Ella  Voices from the March on Washington
114 pp. | Boyds/Wordsong 2014 | Trade ISBN 978-1-62091-785-5

Poets Lewis and Lyon here give voice to a cross-section of the 250,000 participants of the 1963 March on Washington: from first grader Ruby May Hollingsworth and Aki Kimura, a Japanese American sent to an internment camp during WWII, to Coretta Scott King. Many fine works on the civil rights movement are available; this adds the power of poetic imagination. Reading list, websites. Bib., ind.

 

 

 

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