Quick Things You Need To Know:
Through the month of January 2020, I’m unlocking this post for public view. After that, It’ll go back into in-progress locked mode for patron-access only.
- MLK biographies are a fantastic way to start the conversation on racial discrimination if you’re nervous about starting
- We started reading about MLK with Q around age 4.5, I think, which was earlier than I had planned. I’m happy with this though – and have come to recognize that preschool is the ideal time to start naming injustice.
- ‘I am MLK (see the goods and bads about this book below) was our first foray (along with “I Am Jackie Robinson’) in discussing racial discrimination and social injustice.
- Common misconceptions about MLK debunked:
- He was not a womanizer/sexual degenerate – this is listed as mostly false on Snopes. This is a trope that feeds into stereotypes about hypersexualized Black masculinity, and was created with intent to discredit him and reverse his progress toward racial equality.
- His most popular speech, often called the ‘I have a dream’ speech, was originally called ‘Normalcy, Never Again’
- In his work as he grew to understand tone policing, he later spoke about how he regretted being too optimistic about how easy the fight for civil rights would be, wishing it had been less superficial and a bit more realistic. This is a typical path for most advocates and activists and isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
- If you’re requesting these from the library, try to request them in late December or early January – most MLK books will be checked out by mid-January for MLK day.
- Topics we’re covering in this collection: Black history, tone policing, activism, social justice, black lives matter, fatherhood, revisionist history neutering radical views, disruption, problematic books, white supremacy, and the holiday of MLK day
- Post last updated 1/15/20. Currently waiting on newly published books to arrive so we can test them.
My Top Favorites
Lots of notes on these ones, so here’s a shortlist, with detailed articles on them below:
- My Daddy – King (top most favorite – see notes below), ages 4+
- I Am Martin Luther King – Meltzer (see reservations in the article at the bottom), ages 4+
- I have a dream – Kadir Nelson, ages 7+ (most gorgeous) Ages 7+ for text, ok for toddlers if you’re just in it for the illustrations
- The Cart That Carried Martin (recommended) – Eve Bunting, Ages 5+
Books I like, but are too advanced to screen with my kids
All of these look promising and I enjoyed reading them. I’m going to try these again once my kids get older, but they won’t work for kids under 6.
Marin Luther King – Zeldis & Bray I particularly like the writing in this one, although it’s too advancd for 5y (try again at 9). paintings are an odd fit, they feel like a katzish fauvism compete with the words. this is a promising one for when the boys are older, as it points out context I haven’t found in other books.
Martin’s Dream day – kitty kelley – real, GOOD phoographs by staney tretick that help connect us with the individuals and realism of the civil rights movement. this was particularly well done, and the book is well designed. Stated age range is 5+, but a little too advanced for 5 (he’d get the text, but it’s not engaging for him at this age), so I’d try again around 7+
Love will see you through – watkins – Q chose this one as the most interesting cover, but it was still too advanced for 5.5, not because of complexity, but just because it’s a didactic mandate of 6 guiding beliefs with no story. the writing is typical of watkins, and the connection from her to MLK feels weak compared o the one written by his son. “Uncle Martin believed…” feels forced and gimmicky. I like the idea though and i would definitely include it in a unit, although I’d read’My Daddy’ first. 6 guiding principles “1. Have Courage, 2 love your enemies, 3 fight hte problem, not the person who caused it, 4 when innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help, 5 resist violence of any kind, 6 the universe honors love.” – each one includes a short vignette of an event in his life on how he practiced these principles. illustrations: colorful and interesting. stated age range is for grades 2-6
- Martin Rising – requiem for a king – pinkney – Black woman makers – poetry, very thick book, written for older kids, but from what little I read, it’s utterly lovely. ages 9-12
- Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (Pinkney) – This says it’s for kids ages 6+, but it leaps in then goes on, poetic and abstract, right into names and places that leave a 7-year-old with no where to place themselves within the story. Engagement matters! For kids like mine – for whom words like ‘choir,’ ‘congregation,’ ‘gospel’ and ‘sermon’ have no meaning, it leaves us spinning. It’s a gorgeous book, and I’m wild about the concept of talking not just about MLK, but about one of the women who made his dream possible. But it’s not accessible to folks outside Christianity, so we’re gonna need to brush up on these basic terms first.
Books referencing MLK in the background
- The Youngest Marcher (recommended) 5+
- Let the children march (recommended) 6+
- Heart And Soul (recommended) – Says 6+, but it’s so thick and dense, I’m waiting until 7 or 8 to start
- Child of the civil rights movement – Shelton (recommended), says 4+, but more effective for 5+
Belle, the last mule at Gee’s Bend (Stroud) – Also helpful for voting rights & access, civil rights movement, ages 6+
Fine but boring or with caveats – it’s okay to skip these
My Uncle Martin’s Words For America – Watkins stories written from perspective of sister & niece. all well-illustrated and nice, but suggest that the fight is over and racism is over. i do like that this personifies him as a real person, suggesting that we are capable of these things too. but ‘my daddy’ does this too, but better. boring and not worth reading, although they all seem better than ones written by non-family.
I’ve Seen the promised land- walter dean myers – great art, boring but acceptable text
Marching with Martin- lorenzo pace – puffy paint and googly art eyes inspired by bazat, written in first person perspective as son of civil rights pastor Pace
Dr. Marin Luher King, Jr. – colin bootman unengaging, fine, but boring
a picture book of martin luther king – david adler unengaging, fine, but boring
Martin’s big words – rappaport – boringest – all of these jazz up the illustrations a bit but are still boring and not as engaging as I’d like. lack stories or personal connection with the reader
Dreams- the story of martin Luther king, jr.- peter murray – too much text and not enough illustrations, although I do like the illustrations. reads kinda like a biography version of an encyclopedia, no undercurrent of themes or emotional connection. nah.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day- MacMillan boring NOPE
Martin Luther King Day– lowery boring NOPE.
Singing for Dr. King- van wright tries to see civil rights movement through eyes of little girl, but bland and boring and it’s been done better in other books. NOPE
Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King– Pinkney illustrations: typical pinkney, but a little brighter and cleaner than usual. briefly goes over his early life but fails to point out why we should care, so fairly certain kids would toss the book within the first two pages. written for prechoolers but boring and unengaging, only covers surface topics and not memorable at all.NOPE
Happy Birthday, Dr. King!– Cooper Jamal is in 4th grade (seems to be written for that age group, too boring for 5) – gets sent home with a pink slip and his grandfather discusses how fighting to sit at the back of the bus is insulting. addresses how he’s learning surface topics at school but they don’t address what MLK REALLY did and the significance of it. boring though. illustrations: terribly dark and blurry
- Martin Luther King JR. – Gary Jeffrey I love the idea of doing biographies in graphic novel form, but the story is boring and it’s not done with all of the things that make graphic novels exciting and dynamic. just a bland bio with word bubbles set in panels. shame. cover doesn’t look like a graphic novel either, so they completely waste the novelty of this.
- Be A King – weatherford – I love weatherford but…nah. paintings are a little too 90’s, Q was not excited about these. no story didactic and forgettable. stuff like “You can be a King. Know that bigotry hurts. Remember how you felt when treated unfairly.” – “Break the chains of ignorance. Learn as much as you can.” too vague, not sure who this is written for. not bad, but meh. if it’s written for older kids, it’s surprisingly short. normalizes kid in a wheelchair who bakes cookies, so at least there is that?
- As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom (Michelson) – Great idea, terrible execution. The illustrations are dreary and static, the story suddenly jumps from MLK to Heschel – a cinematic leap that works for movies, not so much for kidlit. I love the idea of showing Jewish accomplices in the fight for desegregation and civil rights, but both me and the 7yo found this unappealing and dreary. The messages and scenes were great. Also that language – we gotta be careful tossing around terms like ‘colored’ and ‘negros’ without quantifying it as language of the time. Last thing we need is a bunch of white kids thinking that is standard language for today. Given that it’s a white author, this language troubles me.
- Martin Luther King JR.– Gary Jeffrey
- My Brother Martin – Farris
- My Uncle Marin’s Big Heart- Watkins
- When Martin Luther King Jr. wore roller skates – weakland – offers nothing you can’t get fromother books and in fact reccommends Meltzer’s OPCTW series at the end. Kust kind of buzz buzz buzz drops factoids from his life (mostly childhood) in a way that is neither relatable nor interesting. Problematic for pedestal trope – he’s so unique it’s not worth trying to emulate his work because he’s super human – citing how he skipped 9th and 11th grade and started college at 15. That’s not particularly relevant to his accomplishments, and promotes the ‘black excellence’ trope that toes the line on ‘one of the good ones.’ Skipping grades is also not something I want my kids seeing as a goal. Problematic for reductivism, pedestals, and intellectualism.
- I Am Martin Luther King (meltzer) – Problematic for reductivism & erasure of his radical-ness. See article below.
- we shall overcome – levy & brantley newton. This was not as good a book as I had hoped. the illustrations are wonderful, but I’m not sure who it’s written for. The text seems aimed at my preschooler/early elementary, but without a firm storyline or any hook it just doesn’t hold attention. Just pages of vague history like Lyndon B. Johnson deciding to give a speech, etc. Uses ‘African-American’ and ‘Black mericans’ interchangeably. Not all people who identify as one of these identify as both. Usage of ‘Black Americans and white Americans’ promotes a racial binary and suggests they are mutually exclusive – which erases multiracial folks. “But Black Americans and some white Americans, did believe they could overcome the unfairness, hate, and violence.” Overall just a PITA to read aloud – each spread contains a few lines from the song, interrupted with a phrase pulled from the song for a speech, etc. How do we read this? Do we read a few lines and go back to reading regular text? Do we read the book once as an interrupted song, and then go back and read the text? The song itself can’t really be read in plain text like a title because it’s so repetitive. We ended up not finishing the book because it was so annoying (we do this maybe once in ever several hundred books). this really just felt like a cash-grab in the library/school market as an easy sell for MLK day. I really wish these illustrations were accompanied by better text. Otherwise i do love this author. ANOTHER issue I have is the tense – everything “was” and THEN “race hatred did grow weaker. Freedom grew stronger.” Um well okay sort of but not really. Anti-Black racism is still a thing, and the prison labor market is still a thing. Ohh gosh and then the part where we elected a black president as the way we fixed racism. This is a dangerous post-racial fallacy. We were taught in the 80’s that MLK fixed racism in the 60’s, so now it’s not something we have to worry about. Backtracking, the last page does say that “people still struggle against hatred, and for freedom…” but it kind of gives you the idea that we’re struggling against something other than racism, and race has been taken off the table of issues so we can focus on other stuff.
My Daddy – by Martin Luther King, III (highly recommended)
“We knew that guns were wrong. They were not toys – they were machines made to hurt and kill. Together the whole family took the guns outside, made a bonfire, and destroyed them. That night, as my brother and I watched our gifts burn, we believed we were destroying all the hate in the world.”
I’m trying to wrap my brain around the experience of Martin Luther King, III’s experience – what is it like to grow up in the shadow of a man who has a national holiday dedicated to him?
What’s it like to lose your father, not just to violence, but as a martyr to a cause?
How do you grow up without comparing yourself? Without trying to measure up, your identity forever tied to one of the most beloved figures in American history? How do you deal with that, while also facing the brutal attacks of those who reviled and hated him, in a country still so deeply racist and unjust?
Can’t wrap my brain around that at all. But I can tell you that this book, written by Martin Luther King, III, the son of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is by far the best book I’ve ever read on the iconoclast.
I thought I’d have to wrestle Q into this book, he usually hates ‘realistic’ illustrations, but something about the warm, glowing images made them inviting, rather than boring. (This is some odd witchery I’ve never encountered before).
What I love most about this book – what puts it above and beyond the many picture-book biographies written by MLK’s relatives and colleagues, is the perspective of both humanity and admiration we see when we read about MLK from the eyes of his son.
“The rides and the roller coasters were for white people only. That’s how i was when I was growing up. My dad fought to change that. At home though, my father was just Dad.”
He’s no longer a super-human icon, he’s just dad, at the dinner table. He’s not standing at a podium, orating like a boss, he’s doing goofy dad stuff, like tossing his kids in the air and plopping them down on top of the fridge.
But we also see how, like every parent, MLK fought for small things (in unusually big ways). We see his his children beg to go to the local amusement park – always getting the response ‘later.’
And we learn it’s not just a busy, tired parent procrastinating to get through the nagging. It’s not a lie. When MLK says he’ll bring the kids another day – because today they can’t go. He means it – he’s dedicating his life to desegregation and opening that park up to kids of color and he honestly believes he’ll get it done so that someday, they WILL be able to go together.
Not only is this the perfect vignette to introduce kids to the idea of racism and the US’s history of segregation, it’s also a great way to hold ourselves to a higher standard. That, and some more bits of the story, show some some next-level parenting.
“Some people didn’t like my father’s work. He was ‘stirring up trouble,’ they said.”
Though the eyes of his son, we see the effects of a parent’s activism on their children. We learn how MLK III was afraid of the backlash from both white and black classmates when he told them his (in)famous name.
We learn how being thrown in jail over 30 times is not just hard on the hero, but the family who spends Christmas without daddy – how scary that can be. And how valid and real those feelings were, when we remember that MLK was killed when the author was only 10 years old.
In an elegant nod to the Kings’ power, wealth, and privilege even within a racist system, we see how MLK chose to use his power for the good of everyone – and lets us ponder the costs and sacrifices the King family made (and still make) for the US.
On the very BEST page, we turn to see MLK marching forward with protestors in solidarity. In the background, almost hidden, we see a shock of white. It’s a bandage on a woman’s nose. Like me, Q saw it immediately and asked about it.
I WANTED the book to talk about police brutality. I’ve taught my sons about this, but what I say conflicts with what they see on cartoons, in school, and in other books.
I wanted to finally have found the book that gently but clearly – introduces the existence of police brutality and systemic white supremacy. I was prepared to be let-down. I discussed it on my own words, then we continued reading.
Only to find the text addressed police brutality – almost verbatim to our own conversation. Holy crap, you guys. This book is perfection. Both the author and illustrator have a respect for kids that is rare – trusting them to take this hard truth and work through it. This kind of writing takes courage.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in the shadow of MLK, Jr. But it gives me hope to see that his son created something so beautiful – a loving tribute that honors his father, gives us hope, and also reminds us that while his dad was special – he was a regular person, just like us.
It teaches kids that there’s a cost to courage, but off his pedestal, we see that it’s also possible regular people to do great things. Some lead movements. Some burn guns. Some write books. It’s good to show our kids the many ways they can grow up courageous and kind.
I Am Martin Luther King By Brad Meltzer (recommended with reservations)
Written by a white author, Brad Meltzer. I have a love/hate relationship with this series (Ordinary People Change The World) , as it’s spectacularly executed and gets kids engaged with history in a way no other series has done before. But Meltzer’s bias shows, particularly against women and BIPOC. He’s a subscriber of the ‘good/bad’ dynamic of what it means to be a ‘good’ woman, a ‘good’ Black man who deserves equality, versus…the others.
So, we use these books to introduce new people because the illustrations pull kids in and also, they are heart-warming and I’ll be honest – it’s hard not to cry when reading them, they really are very inspiring.
BUUUUUT, as we discuss in the previous Facebook post, Meltzer does the same thing many biographies about MLK do – they flatten him into a 2-dimensional icon, removing his flaws, his existence as a vulnerable human, and most important, his radical views and how hated and detested he was for gently calling for racial equality.
I’ve loved this book for years, and it’s still great. But there’s something lurking below the surface, something reeking of white supremacy, in this portrayal of MLK that we need to discuss with our kids.
Back in December, we discussed the whitewashing of ‘I Am Sacagawea’ from the ‘Ordinary People Change The World’ series. Throughout 2017, we debated costs and benefits of using historically inaccurate, whitewashed books from this series to educate young kids on heroes and fighters of oppression.
Is it an acceptable cost to provide kids with engaging, inspiring books about courageous heroes, so long as inspiring books of this caliber are rare? I know that’s problematic – accurate representation matters, and what is acceptable to gloss over with a toddler is not acceptable for a 12-year-old, if ever.
Right now, I want my 3-year-old to understand the zeitgeist of a movement, to look up and emulate the courage of a hero. I don’t use these books as canon, but as a launchpad to get the Earthquakes interested and inspired to learn more.
And this series does this really, REALLY well. My boys love this book, and so do I. Go ahead. Try to read one of these aloud without crying.
I’m glad ‘I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.’ doesn’t attempt to erase crimes against humanity and atrocious behavior like the Meltzer does in ‘I Am Sacagawea.’ This one doesn’t really talk much about white folks at all. It still does the job – getting my boys excited about MLK.
But there’s also something we need to be aware of. It’s a GOOD thing to threading a message of hope and non-violence throughout this book. But there’s something deeply racist about celebrating MLK for his ‘appropriate’ activism, about the way we honor him for being such a well-behaved Good Black Man.
There’s an understanding in our society, one built upon a foundation of white supremacy, that people of color must BEHAVE. They must never fight back. If they do fight back – it must be in ways acceptable to oppressors, with non-violence, compassion, and love.
People of color must always be careful to watch their tone. It doesn’t matter what white folks are doing – even threatening, humiliating, or beating them. People of color are never allowed to step out of line – to shout, to get upset, to act human. Only with kind, inclusive language, with super-human patience and always-above-board manners, and only then, are they worthy of the basic human rights white people feel entitled to from birth.
It doesn’t matter if a mother is staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun, she must choose her words carefully, she must not shout, she must stay cool and be respectful. This year, Charleena Lyles had the audacity to shout at the police she had called to her home to investigate a break-in. She paid for it by taking seven bullets, at least one in the back, one in her uterus where her 5-month fetus was growing, all in front of her young children, leaving them motherless.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a physician or grammy-nominated Yale graduate and cancer researcher, Asian people must not only comply, but defer respectfully or face humiliation and abuse when forced to give up seats on an airplane. Dr. David Dao and Dr. Mei Rui’s stories are our reminders that playing along and otherwise ‘behaving’ in a system of white supremacy does not mean we get to be TREATED as white.
It doesn’t matter if there’s an epidemic of children being fed into the judiciary system, perpetuating an economy based on prison slavery and inhumane living conditions. To break windows, to block traffic, to protest in the streets wearing gas masks and safety goggles, to kneel on the field – It’s too disrespectful, too divisive. Don’t they know that making a fuss does more harm than good? Don’t they know to play along and ask, respectfully, to pretty please stop killing children? Don’t they know that they must never insist that Black lives matter without making sure to stroke the ego of white folks, reassuring them that sure – aaaall lives matter.
So I want you guys to read this again, and to take the good from it – this story of a man with endless patience and kindness and courage in his heart. But I also would like you to read it through the lens of understanding that this is a white maker applauding the ‘right’ kind of activism – the activism of The Good Black Man Who Behaved.
And I want us to remember that MLK was imprisoned over 30 times. He was NOT a man who behaved. He was a man who fought. He was a man who moved the bar on what is and is not acceptable for people of color to speak out loud, in ways that were divisive, illegal, and, in the eyes of many people of color and white people half a century ago, violent and wrong.
It’s only 50 years later that we see his message of non-violence and compassion as acceptable. Dr. King was not a ‘Good Black Man Who Behaved’ in 1968, and it’s wrong of us to erase his rebellious nature and paint him as a saint. He was a Black man who raised holy hell. That’s SO much more valuable, and that’s the America hero spirit we should be proud of.
As we move forward in 2018, I’m thinking that to truly honor Dr. King, we should be pissing off oppressors, confronting our own acts of racism, and disobeying broken systems. We should misbehave.
I have a dream by Kadir Nelson (Recommended)
Beautifully illustrated but no story. The text is excerpts from ‘Normalcy, Never Again’ (the I have a dream speech). Kinda loses the oomph since i prefer watching/hearing him give the actual speech. Obviously his speech is too advanced for littleso maybe age this for kids around 7+. those illustrations though – UGH Nelson is SO GOOD AT THIS. He treats portraits of people of color with the most dignity and respect and depth I’ve ever seen. So damn good, it’s worth just having for kids to see that power.