A Place to Land

Cover of A Place to LandA Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation is an exemplary nonfiction picture book — as in, it represents the best of its kind. The story it tells — of the crafting of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington — is absolutely riveting; and the visual interpretation of the story is superb. What a challenge this book must have been to illustrate. And how spectacularly Jerry Pinkney met that challenge. He took an inherently interior story — what was going on in MLK's head and within his inner circle of advisers — and infuses it with energy and dynamism and suspense and immediacy. 

And depth and layers and layers. Because although the book takes place in a moment in time, in the short span of an extremely tense 24 hours, this is a book infused with the past and cognizant of the future. Here, MLK is a man on the cusp of change: "Martin stepped up to the lectern, and stepped down on the other side of history." 

How does Pinkney capture all of this complexity in his "graphite, color pencil, watercolor, and collage" illustrations? I'm just going to go there and say: brilliantly. In fact, this might be Pinkney's finest work. I know that's saying something, after a lifetime of acclaimed picture books. But it feels like he's stretching his artistic muscles here. There's an inventiveness; a freshness; a notable sense of risk-taking.

For this post I at first went spread by spread, noting on each one the various choices Pinkney made: to clarify (with labels identifying individuals portrayed in the illustrations), deepen (by making manifest MLK's thoughts; his influences and inspirations; his memories), and concretize (through the incorporation of scraps of photos of relevant buildings and objects). And I assume the Real Committee will do just that — look at every single spread. Here I have room to highlight just a few of them. 

Starting with the title spread, which immediately sets the scene by showing the two primary locations where this story plays out: DC's landmark Willard Hotel, where MLK and his advisers conferred and where the speech was written; and the National Mall, with the Lincoln Memorial at the top, where the speech was delivered. We already get hints of the techniques Pinkney will be using in the book: a penciled-in label, identifying the Willard Hotel; a scrap of a photograph of the hotel's exterior incorporated into Pinkney's drawing; small, loosely scribbled figures on the sidewalk.

Pinkney uses collage elements throughout with such intention. They all have meaning. On one spread, the text describes crowds from all over the country heading to DC to take part in the March on Washington. Our eye is drawn to a young newsboy standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial (where MLK's speech will be delivered), hawking copies of a Washington Afro-American newspaper with the headline, "They're pouring in from all over." The boy's face is shining and eager and wholly attention-grabbing, But behind the boy, Pinkneys's art is doing something extraordinary with collage. At the bottom of the Lincoln Memorial's steps, Pinkney places scraps of road maps — of Memphis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta — along with a torn scrap of that same headline ("They're pouring in from all over"). Those maps then funnel and morph into a stream of scribbled figures doing just that: pouring up the steps of the Memorial. The storytelling in that transition from maps to humans is so clear and powerful; the sense of movement, of motion, is phenomenal.

Many of Pinkney's illustrations feature MLK 's face in close up, with him deep in thought. And "depth" is a crucial word for this book, because it's a portrait of a man going way down inside himself and back in the past to pull out the words he needed, the theme he needed, for his speech. We see MLK's face in closeup with portraits of his father and grandfather, both preachers, behind him; we see him thinking about Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others. Pinkney shows them to us, on a felicitously composed spread incorporating labels, a tiny collaged scrap of the wallpaper at the Willard to remind us of where we are, and a crumpled piece of paper from the yellow pad on which he is struggling to write his speech. 

I haven't mentioned yet Pinkney's use of color. We know he's a master of color. There's a spread where MLK is standing at the lectern, delivering his speech, and pauses — because he knows his speech, as written, isn't quite right yet. Mahalia Jackson, who is the one who exhorts MLK to return to his preaching roots and "tell them about the dream," is positioned on the righthand page, in the lower corner. Most of the art is in muted colors. Our eye is caught first by the dark graphite of MLK's suit jacket. But the momentum of the composition — the crowd all turned toward Mahalia Jackson, leaning toward her, really — immediately sends our eye to Mahalia herself, who stands out, the only figure dressed in bold vibrant colors, wearing a bright blue hat and sporting a bright yellow corsage. Pinkney manages to depict (respectfully) a crowd of people, yet at the same time singling out and forefronting the two crucial individuals of that moment.

(A note: perhaps it's not the most Caldecott-relevant thing, but this is a book full of beautiful brown faces, from Martin Luther King himself to his advisers to the background portraits to the crowds at the March to the paperboy. And the impact, by book's end, is really quite strong.)

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of A Place to Land.]

The sense of history here is palpable — and made more so by the collage elements, as Pinkney incorporates scraps of photos of the real telephone in MLK's hotel room; the real coffee pot on his table; the real U.S. Capitol; Lincoln Memorial; etc. I'm fascinated by his use of collage in depicting JFK's White House. It's the only instance I saw in the book where collage was used to fragment, not consolidate. And of course it makes sense, since JFK's relationship with the civil rights movement was so ambiguous. Obviously, I have no idea if that was intentional! But I hope it's the kind of thing the Real Committee will be noting as it pores over this spectacular, eminently Caldecott-worthy book.

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
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Martha Parravano

[A note from me: my review confused the May 1963 Birmingham Campaign with the September 1963 Birmingham church bombing; I've removed my original reference. My sincere apologies to all.]

Posted : Dec 18, 2019 09:32

Megan Lambert

I'm very sorry to say I haven't seen this picture book yet, Martha. You've convinced me I must seek it out! "In fact, this might be Pinkney's finest work. I know that's saying something, after a lifetime of acclaimed picture books. But it feels like he's stretching his artistic muscles here. There's an inventiveness; a freshness; a notable sense of risk-taking." Wow.

Posted : Dec 17, 2019 11:30



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