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Six Children’s Books for Martin Luther King Day

From picture books to graphic novels, great reads for all ages

Marjorie Ingall
January 14, 2015
AFP/Getty Images
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King on March 29, 1966. AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King on March 29, 1966. AFP/Getty Images

These days, Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of justice, equality, and peace seems more important than ever. Since your kids will probably be home on Monday for Martin Luther King Day, here are six books about the great man to share with them, no matter their age.

1. As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Raul Colón (Age 5-9). I’ve already written about my love of this gorgeous book, which separately tells the stories of the early years of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, then brings them together in the fight for social justice. I’m a huge fan of Colon’s shimmering, ethereal, textured llustrations with wavy lines scratched into the paint, and of Michelson’s straight-talking text, a jumping-off point for parents to discuss the way Jews have been and must continue to be allies in other people’s struggles. “God did not make a world with just one color flower,” Heschel said. “We are all made in God’s image.”

2. NYPL librarian Betsy Bird recommends Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend, by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, illustrated by John Holyfield (Ages 4-8). It’s the story of a small-town mule with her own role to play in the civil rights movement. King visits Gee’s Bend to encourage black people to vote; when the white sheriff finds out, he shuts down the ferry that crosses the river to the polling place. (He says, “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.”) Gee’s Bend residents hitch their wagons to mules, including Belle, for a long journey around the river to vote. Later, Belle helps pull King’s casket at his funeral… and earns the right to live out the rest of her life in a field, gorging on collards.

3. A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Eric Velazquez (Ages 4-8). This oversized picture book, recommended by Baltimore librarian Paula Willey, features beautiful, realistic charcoal illustrations. It’s almost all black and white, with touches of red—including the titular roses. (Young readers will enjoy analyzing the limited splashes of limited color on each page.) Two sisters sneak out to march with King, dreaming of how freedom will one day smell like flowers.

4. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Age 5-9). This Caldecott Honor Book offers a mix of elaborate, muted watercolors and vivid paper-cut collage; lushly hued stained-glass windows may be familiar to young Jewish kids from synagogue. The story combines King’s own words from his speeches with minimalistic, poetic text.

5. Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.? by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Nancy Harrison (Age 8-12). Part of a paperback series for beginning independent readers, the covers of which always feature creepy oversized heads, this is a straightforward telling of King’s life and death. It’s clear, easy to read, and solid on both King’s life and the history of segregation and the civil rights movement. Wavy-lined pen-and-ink spot illustrations break up the text and increase the readability. A lot of kids like “true books,” rather than fiction, and this fits the bill ably.

6. March, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (Age 12 and up). This is the first part of a projected trilogy for older readers about civil rights leader John Lewis, focusing on his childhood (preaching to chickens on his family’s farm), his meeting with and learning from King, and the brutal attacks he suffered as a student during peaceful lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. What makes this book truly special is its graphic novel format, with powerful art by New York Times best-selling artist Powell (winner of the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize). Lewis was himself inspired as a teenager by the 1958 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” and decided that the sequential art format was the way he wanted to tell this story.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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