a list of…five vibrant stories honoring MLK Day

Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier

We all know the iconic figure of Rosa Parks, and the domino-effect moment in her life when she sat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  Here, Nikki Giovanni paints in the fascinating preamble to that moment, reveals the thoughts of Rosa as she made her weary, firm choice, and narrates the ripple effect of the bus boycott she inadvertently precipitated.

Giovanni is a poet, and her words in this story sing with quiet strength.  The Rosa she presents is a loving wife, a talented and conscientious seamstress, an every day, working woman, who on this particular day in history calmly chose to hold fast to her rights.  In the process of chronicling the events of December 1955 and the year-long bus boycott, Giovanni weaves in helpful information about civil rights legislation and abuses which created the landscape in which Parks lived.

Bryan Collier received a Caldecott Honor for his compelling, intriguing illustrations in this book.  Using watercolor and collage, Collier creates boldly textured and colored backdrops, then sets Rosa, and others, in them with such forthrightness that their faces dominate the scene, no matter their size.  I am fascinated by how he must have soul-searched in order to determine the expressions for Rosa’s eyes, face, and postures.  Several illustrations feature a medieval-looking halo of light emanating from Rosa and Dr. King which Collier explains symbolizes the light which these brave individuals have thrown onto many pathways.

This is an outstanding picture book biography, suitable for early elementary through adult.

Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Greensboro, North Carolina.  February, 1960.  A simple lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s.  Four young friends, sitting, waiting for a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

Sounds like an ordinary, unremarkable scene.  But of course, it was not.  For these four friends were young, black men, who had the audacity to sit in a place set apart for whites.  David, Joseph, Franklin, and Ezell had committed themselves to Dr. King’s method of nonviolent protest, and had steeled themselves to apply it at the lunch counter, in the hopes of dismantling unjust segregation laws.

Andrea Pinkney tells their story, beginning with just the four of them, sitting politely and quietly, and building as more and more students join them in Greensboro, in other southern towns, as the students are abused, attacked, arrested, joined by whites, and culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned segregation in public places.  Spinning off of the lunch counter setting, Pinkney cleverly adopts a cooking metaphor throughout the story, which lifts this from a strictly factual presentation, to a colorful, joyous, creative piece of prose.

Brian Pinkney’s exuberant watercolor and ink illustrations have a fabulous contemporary line and palette.   60s harvest gold and avocado swish across the pages while dancing black lines swivel into shapes. The sweep of the ever-elongating lunch counter carries as much motion as the protest movement itself.   It’s punctuated by the many, many individuals who sit at that counter; no motion there.

A helpful, annotated, Civil Rights Timeline, and lengthy author’s note add a great deal of information to this book.  The story itself is brief and optimistic, accessible to early elementary children; the additional facts will be interesting to older elementary through adult. The entire book, from this mega- talented, often-awarded ,wife-husband team, brims with creativity and triumph.

A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

The most famous boxing match of all time took place in Yankee Stadium, on June 22, 1938, when German great Max Schmeling went up against America’s world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.  Louis, the son of a black sharecropper was in the fight of his life against a celebrated member of Hitler’s “master race,” and millions of people around the world were listening breathlessly for the outcome.

They didn’t have to listen long.  Louis decisively won the match in two minutes.   Celebrations erupted across the U.S., as the streets of Harlem overflowed with glee.

Honestly, I am so not into boxing, that I resisted reading this book for a long time despite the many, many accolades it has received!  Once I picked it up and began reading, however, I found it to be an absorbing, moving account of one man’s battle in the rings which won a victory against racial bigotry for all of us.  Matt de la Peña tells Louis’ story in lean, poetic lines, in which every word counts.  No time to nod off.  No time for attentions to wander.  We are right in the gritty, muscular bits that matter every step of the way.  All that rides on this fight, for Louis personally, for American Blacks weary of racism, and for a freedom-thirsty, Nazi-era, world is packed into these taut lines.

Meanwhile, Kadir Nelson, such a splendid artist, gives us stunning oil paintings from exceptional, brilliant perspectives: the spotlit ring —  just a small pool of light illuminating the two-man battle amid the inky, cavernous stadium; views from the stands, from the mat;  a genius aerial view looking down from the heights at the conclusion of the fight, just three small humans, caught up in something so much larger.  Nelson’s ability to capture tension, power, defeat, hope, is phenomenal.

Admittedly, a good many 7-year-old girls will not click with this book.  It’s a great read, though, that will surprise a lot of you who wouldn’t expect to resonate with a boxing legend, and perfect for boys, especially, who may not readily connect with  Marian Anderson, for example, or even Rosa Parks .  Fantastic collaboration.

Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman, by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Bessie Coleman, a dazzling, daring stunt pilot in the early days of flight, was an incredible, strong woman.  At the time of her tragic death, age 34, Coleman had overcome numerous obstacles to become the world’s first licensed female pilot of African descent.  Working, studying, moving, pressing on, seizing opportunities, making opportunities where none lay, Coleman was a passionate, fearless,  unstoppable force!

Nikki Grimes has taken this charismatic woman’s story, and presented it brilliantly by letting 20 different individuals tell us about Bessie from their vantage point.   Family members, instructors, newspaper reporters, fans, and finally Bessie herself, unfold her interesting life story, and reveal the courageous, effervescent person she was.  Grimes has written several books in which she crafts multiple perspectives, and I have very much enjoyed her rich style and insights. 

And, okay, E.B. Lewis is a superb artist.  I always love his work !  His watercolors shimmer with light, float with airy grace, capture a setting .  Looking at them, I can hear the cicadas, feel the tender bulk of Bessie’s mother, the dry heat of the cotton field, and the crick in my neck from gazing up into the sky at her tilting, somersaulting airplane.  Just gorgeous.

Again, with two such incredibly talented people throwing their creativity into such a fascinating subject, you are in for a great treat with this book.  Probably best for mid-elementary and up, slightly older if they read it themselves.

Delivering Justice:  W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights, by James Haskins, illustrated by Benny Andrews

W.W. Law’s name does not roll off the tongue in the same way that names like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, Sojourner Truth, or Jackie Robinson do, but Law was a stalwart, dauntless, leader in the civil rights movement in Savannah, Georgia, whose life illustrates the incredible impact of peaceful, courageous, steady forward motion.   James Haskins’ book is an interesting introduction to him for early elementary kids, right on up.

Law grew up in Savannah in the 30s, experiencing the degrading impact of segregation and discrimination, but inspired by his mother and grandmother to use his life for good.  Beginning in his teen years, Law worked with the NAACP towards voter registration.  Following graduation from college, Law worked as a mail carrier by day, and for the NAACP causes in the evenings, training students in the ways of nonviolent protest and organizing boycotts against segregation laws.  Law’s effectiveness in maintaining peaceful protests and harmonious relationships with whites in Savannah, helped bring about groundbreaking change in Savannah with very little violence.

In addition, Law, who always took a keen interest in history, worked tirelessly to preserve Black historic sites in Savannah, and was eventually awarded for his lifetime achievements by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among others.  As a history-lover myself, I find his work in this area very meaningful.

Haskins tells Law’s story as a series of short, chronological snippets, giving us a taste of Law’s childhood, stopping at key points in his growing up years, and describing the tense, critical events of the 60s in Savannah.  The narration never bogs down; rather, we are left curious for more knowledge about this dedicated man.

Benny Andrews’ vibrant illustrations are oil and collage scenes of ordinary, almost faceless people, participating in a cause and an environment quite larger than themselves.  There are dramatic, darker colors, to be sure, yet sunny, optimism as well, as Law resolutely lives out his calling.  This is a book by an author and illustrator I had not known before, about an individual I also did not know, whom I am very happy to have met.

I’ll be reviewing more books in honor of MLK Day as the week goes on.  Meanwhile, here are Amazon links for these terrific titles:


Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Jane Addams Honor Book (Awards))

A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

Talkin’ About Bessie

Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights