a list of…five books honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Orange Marmalade will be focusing on Black Americans in children’s literature all week.  I’ve enjoyed and learned from the reading I’ve done to select these books and  hope you find some new titles to read with your kids, or just for yourself.

I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins

There are many, many biographies of Dr. King.  Here’s what I like about this one:

I like the focus of the book.  With just a brief paragraph on King’s childhood, Myers jumps right to 1955 and the Montgomery bus boycott.  We get accounts of King’s interactions with Ghandi and Malcolm X, and then dive into the years 1963-1968, the text moving like a skipping stone across events such as the March on Washington, hostilities across the country, and the Nobel Peace Prize, before looking at his final days’ activities in Memphis.  Nice variety without feeling scatterbrained.

I like how Myers balances his overview of events and his explanations about the ideas and motives, contrasting opinions and difficult emotions, of this era.  It is not just a book about King.  It is not just a chronology of events.  It is not an overly simplistic analysis of these intense issues.  The book stirs enough of various elements together to convey weight, emotion, and leadership, along with history.

I like the fact that Myers does not talk down to children.  He writes clearly enough that kids as young as 7 or 8 could nicely absorb the information in the book, and effectively enough that older kids and adults will find it interesting reading.  He packs meaning and honor in his well-crafted sentences.

I love the artwork.  Jenkins’ mixed media collages convey strength and depth with their bold shapes and perspectives, striking urban color-schemes and textures.  Great artistic partnership with the text.

Myers and Jenkins have given us an excellent, picture-book-length biography that packs a lot into its few pages.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, pictures by Brian Selznick

Marian Anderson grew up singing.

Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, Marian and her family went about their home singing and humming spirituals and hymns.  But even as a child, Marian’s voice shone out above the rest.  With a voice “strong and velvety and able to climb more than twenty-four notes” Marian was sought out by choir directors and featured in concert programs from the time she was 6 years old.

In 1915, when Marian was eighteen, she decided to take the next step in her musical development and went to enroll at a music school.  She was met by the words:  We don’t take colored.

Marian faced many, many similar trials and humiliations over the years as she pursued her music career during a time when she might be wildly applauded by audiences, then barred from a hotel room, all in the same evening.  She eventually found a master teacher who took her on as a private student, and in the 1930s, toured the concert halls of Europe, where she was a phenomenal success.

Back in the United States, however, she was still denied opportunities, ironically banned from performing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.  A groundswell of support for Marian and against the racist policies silencing her, including action taken by President and Mrs. Roosevelt, resulted in an invitation to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

On Easter Sunday, 1939, before a crowd of 75,000, Marian sang.  And she continued to sing all her life.  At the Lincoln Memorial.  At the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr.  At presidential inaugurations.  For kings and queens.  Even in the Metropolitan Opera — Marian’s dream come true.

An excellent biography capturing Marian’s love for music and quiet, staunch perseverance in the face of racial injustice.  Selznick’s sepia-toned pictures are awash with warmth and dignity.  Extensive notes tell the author’s and illustrator’s interesting experiences and perspectives researching and crafting this beautiful book.

Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change, by Michelle Cook, with illustrations by Cozbi A. Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Bryan Collier, Pat Cummings, Leo and Diane Dillon, AG Ford, E.B. Lewis, Frank Morrison, James Ransome, Charlotte Riley-Webb, Shadra Strickland, and Eric Velasquez

I really like this book.

The sparse but moving storyline moves like a baton:  “Ella sang…so Jackie could score.  Jackie scored…so Rosa could sit.  Rosa sat…so Ruby could learn.”

As we turn each page, we turn a little further on in America’s history, and with each step forward in time, we pause to consider another African-American person who forged ahead in the face of adversity and hatred to accomplish something of significance for themselves and hand off a better world for those to come.

Beginning with Black  Americans who struggled for freedom in the Civil War days, we meet George Washington Carver, Jesse Owens, Hattie McDaniel, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama.  Each one a pioneer in a daunting world of prejudice. 

Beyond the fabulous concept, this book soars because a different artist has tackled each one of the two-page spreads, producing an absolutely glorious array of artistic expressions.  Each page is visually stunning:  a pleasure to linger over.

Brief biographical sketches of each pioneer are included at the end of the book, as well as a thumbnail portion of the portrait with information on the illustrator.  Highly recommended.

Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges, with articles and interviews compiled and edited by Margo Lundell

Hers is an iconic picture:  a very little girl, sweet black legs extending from a starched white dress, big white bow perched on top of tight black curls, holding her mommy’s hand.

A tender six-year-old, surrounded by an angry, screaming mob, hurling insults, spitting, threatening to poison her…all because she had dark skin, and was entering a school formerly reserved for white children.

That was in 1960.  Not all that long ago.  In 1999, when Ruby was 44, she wrote this account of that day and week and year when she was chosen to be the first student to integrate an elementary school in New Orleans.  It is astonishing, horrifying, fascinating, terribly sad, and inspiring all at the same time.  Ruby’s innocence, her mother’s courage, her teacher’s loving determination, her black neighbors’ kindness, the judge’s unwavering support…and the legislature’s opposition, the hate-filled white community, the stress and loneliness and lasting impact of this journey on her family…all this and more are described beautifully in Ruby’s story.

Numerous quotes are included from Ruby’s mother, newspapers, Ruby’s teacher, John  Steinbeck, who happened to be in New Orleans and took himself down to the school to witness the incredible scene, and a number of others.  Many stunning photographs, done in sepia, illustrate the text.

This is an eye-opening book about an important moment in our history, with a fair bit of text and 60+ pages.  Despite the ugliness and massive political maneuvering of this event, it comes across as one gentle woman’s story.  I’d recommend it highly for older elementary students and up.

Ida B. Wells:  Let the Truth Be Told, by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Bonnie Christenson

More than 160 years before Martin Luther King, Jr., was born, a little girl named Ida was born into slavery in Mississippi.  It was 1862.  She was a bright little one who gobbled up learning, so when her parents tragically died in a yellow fever epedemic, leaving Ida, 16 years old, in charge of her younger siblings, Ida went to work as a school teacher.

Living in Memphis, Ida rode the train to work, reading and journaling along the way.  One day when Ida sat in the ladies’ car rather than the smoking car, a conductor ordered her to move out because she was black.  When Ida refused to budge, three strong men dragged her off.  Ida chose to sue the railway, won her case in court, and wrote up her story for her church newspaper.

As Ida became aware of her strength and impact as a writer, she moved into full time writing.  She wrote courageously against lynchings, organized one of the first economic boycotts in the South, and spoke out against injustice across America and Great Britain.  She counted Frederick Douglass, Jane Addams, and Susan B. Anthony among her friends.  She married and raised a family, yet found time to work against school segregation in Chicago and for women’s suffrage.

Ida died in 1931, still more than twenty years before Martin Luther King, Jr. would raise his voice against cruel injustices, encouraging boycotts across southern cities as part of his nonviolent protests.  Ida B. Wells was an extraordinary trailblazer.  This is a great little biography, packing the details of this dynamic woman’s life into a succinct format.  The illustrations are lovely, warm watercolor-and-ink pictures of a strong, content woman.

Here are Amazon links for these titles:
I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson
Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change
Through My Eyes
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told