Review of A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation
by Barry Wittenstein; illus. by Jerry Pinkney
Primary, Intermediate    Porter/Holiday    48 pp.    g
8/19    978-0-8234-4331-4    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-4374-1    $11.99

This superbly executed picture book takes readers behind the scenes of the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. On the night before, with the speech not yet finished, King and nine advisors gathered in the lobby of the Willard Hotel to brainstorm ideas. (Back matter explains that the men met there rather than in any of the guest rooms because those rooms most certainly would have been bugged by the FBI.) The text—propulsive and suspenseful—then follows King as he labored over the speech through the night and kept refining it the next day, right up until he stepped up to the podium, with a “speech typed and finished, / but never finished,” just before 3:30 pm. As King delivered his prepared speech, however, he paused; “even he couldn’t say why.” In the audience, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson “heard what was missing— / the passion of a Sunday morning sermon” and urged King to “tell them about the dream, Martin!” And so, as King put aside his prepared remarks and preached, history was made. The urgency of the text, underscored by boldface type marking the relentless passing of the hours, is complemented beautifully by Pinkney’s more contemplative art. The loose-lined pencil and watercolor-washed illustrations often include emotionally resonant background portraits of people who inspired King as he composed the speech. Collage elements are incorporated brilliantly, from scraps of newspapers, maps, and hotel wallpaper to torn photos of relevant landmarks (the White House; Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church). One particularly effective image shows scraps of maps from all over the country morphing into March attendees streaming up the Lincoln Memorial steps. This is essential American history, distilled into one of the most powerful picture books of the year. Appended with notes from the author and illustrator; brief biographies of the nine “Willard Hotel Advisors” and “Other Voices”; a list of speakers at the March; source notes; and a bibliography.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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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