the struggle for freedom and civil rights…a list of five books to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

This week I’m blogging titles related to the Civil Rights Movement as we look ahead to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  There are lots more excellent titles you can search for in the index (which, by the way, I am working at updating with author and illustrator indexes and perhaps some topical indexes, too.  Slowly, but surely!) so do look around.

i have a dream cover imageI Have a Dream, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., paintings by Kadir Nelson

Here’s really the perfect book for celebrating Dr. King’s birthday.  New in 2012, it’s simply word-for word excerpts from King’s stirring speech, delivered 50 years ago this year.  The words and phrases are so powerful, and beautiful, and familiar, I need say no more.  Such small amounts of text are included per page, that even very young children will be able to attend to it.  Yet the message is for all ages to reckon with.

The massive bonus here, of course, is the artwork.  Kadir Nelson, who is so hugely talented, has given us stunning oil paintings to accompany the speech.   Gorgeous close-ups of Dr. King and his audience in Washington, D.C., crowds of people packed along the edges of the Reflecting Pool, glimpses of the magnificent American countryside over which King longed for freedom to ring, are all here.  The tone of the paintings beautifully conveys the  rich, warm, optimistic, strong sentiments of King’s dream.  Utterly captivating.

i have a dream illustration kadir nelson

Included in the book are the full text of the speech and a CD recording of Dr. King delivering the speech at the March on Washington in August, 1963.   Everything is here that should be, and nothing more. You know how you don’t realize something is missing until surprisingly it shows up?  This is the book on King that’s been missing.  Be sure to find it.

child of the civil rights movement cover imageChild of the Civil Rights Movement, by Paula Young Shelton, illustrated by Raul Colón

In 1961, Paula Young was a little girl, living in New York with her sisters and parents.  Her Mama and Daddy had moved there from the South, but that year, as Freedom Riders boarded buses to protest segregation laws, the two of them declared that the time had come to move back in order to help as they could in the civil rights movement.  Paula’s father, Andrew Young, would come to have an incredibly influential role in the movement as well as the politics of this country, eventually serving in Congress and  being appointed ambassador to the United Nations.

child of the civil rights movement illustration raul colon

In this book, Paula shares her early memories of  the heartbreaking Jim Crow laws she experienced, the sweet community that existed between her family, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other leaders of the civil rights movement, the Selma to Montgomery march she was a part of, and the triumphant passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Her story is told plainly, quietly, simply, with a pleasing choice of details that engagingly capture a child’s eye view of these events.  As a four-year-old, she had, understandably, vague ideas about a big black crow named Jim; she had picturesque ways of describing the voices and personalities of folks like Ralph Abernathy and “Uncle” Martin as they crowded round her table, discussing plans, eating her mama’s delicious corn bread and sweet tea; the long march to Montgomery was far too much for her small legs, so she experienced most of it from the arms of one person after another as they carried her along the way.  It’s an especially accessible account for early elementary children.

Raul Colón’s illustrations are, as always, so beautiful.  His technique, which he describes on the front papers, is incredibly complex, and the trademark gradations of color and patterned textures he achieves are exquisite.  I love the way he has chosen perspectives that highlight the child’s viewpoint of this story.  Really beautiful collaboration, here.

belle the last mule at gee's bend cover imageBelle, the Last Mule of Gee’s Bend: A Civil Rights Story by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, illustrated by John Holyfield

In April, 1968, a humble farm wagon bearing the body of Martin Luther King, Jr. was pulled by two mules through the streets of Atlanta in his funeral procession.  The names of the mules were Belle and Ada.

Belle and Ada belonged to folks from the small community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  “Benders”, the folks were called, and they had enjoyed Dr. King’s belle the last mule at gee's bend illustration john holyfield 001speeches and joined in his protests over the years.  When Dr. King was assassinated, his wish was honored for a funeral carriage expressive of his work on behalf of poor black people — and the folks of Gee’s Bend were honored to provide the mules.

In this interesting book, a young boy named Alex puzzles over the preferential treatment given to an old mule named Belle by an elderly woman named Miz Pettgrew, which leads Miz Pettgrew to tell him the whole story.  That Belle was the very mule who had transported Dr. King’s casket is fascinating to Alex, as it surely was to me, and will be to others ages 6 and up.  During the course of her story, Miz Pettgrew covers the determined voting registration work done in that area, the historic marches they participated in, the ingenuous Freedom Quilting Bee, the obstacles which were overcome to transport Belle and Ada to Atlanta, and the funeral procession itself.

Holyfield’s acrylic illustrations are bright and bold, filled with strong individuals, the rustic countryside, and those indispensable mules.  This is a great, upbeat read with an unusual angle which will pull in listeners. 

unspoken a story from the underground railroad cover imageUnspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad, written and illustrated by Henry Cole

On a lonely farm in northern Virginia, a young girl watches silently as a small troop of Confederate soldiers rides past one autumn morning.  With their departure, she continues on with her farm chores, the quiet routines of feeding chickens and gathering vegetables from the cold storage shed as normal as drawing breath for her.

Suddenly, though, she becomes aware of something far from the ordinary!  Behind the mass of cornstalks piled against the shed wall, an eye is peering out at her.  An eye!  Who is it?!

The day passes, and all her thoughts are consumed with this unknown person, this hiding person, this needy person.  So, after night falls, she silently steals back to the shed, a bundle of food tucked under her arm.  This secretive supplying continues, as days go by, with luscious wedges of apple pie and high, mouthwatering biscuits.  All is well, until a party of slave trackers comes to the homestead.  After some tense moments, they move on to continue their search elsewhere, but this place has obviously become too dangerous.  The fugitive moves along,  leaving behind a special gift for her caregiver.

unspoken a story from the underground railroad illustrations henry cole

This is a gorgeous, wordless book, illustrated with quiet graphite illustrations that match the secrecy and vulnerabilty of the story.  Cole’s outstanding pictures draw you into this young girl’s world, maintaining the stealth, the tension, the aloneness of both parties, as well as the tender care each has for the anonymous other.  It’s a really beautiful book, accessible to ages 4 or 5 and up, and I love that it highlights the heroic love of a child for just one person.  Small acts matter.

An Author’s Note relates how Cole’s family history in Virginia inspired this story, and describes a bit of the Civil War and Underground Railroad history unique to Loudoun County, Virginia.

moses when harriet tubman led her people to freedom cover imageMoses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

When I was a child, one of my very favorite books was a slim biography of Harriet Tubman.  I read it over and over, utterly spellbound by this brave woman’s daring rescue missions, literally holding my breath as I read of her quieting babies and sneaking through the dangerous woods.

Thus, I’m especially drawn to this gorgeous picture book biography of Tubman with its stirring account of the “courageous, compassionate, and deeply religious” conductor on the Underground Railroad.  The brief, free-verse-style narrative focuses on Tubman’s thoughts, her inner conversations with herself and God, and the divine responses she senses from God as she navigates deadly paths, makes life and death decisions, threads her way over uncharted land towards freedom.  We watch as Harriet feels the call on her life to rescue hundreds of others at such a large risk to herself.  Her tenacity, strength, dedication, selflessness are amazing and inspirational.

moses when harriet tubman led her people to freedom illustration kadir nelson

Kadir Nelson’s masterful paintings — which won a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award — perfectly interpret the text.  Tubman’s warm, weary face, always noble, at times overcome with burden, solemn, peaceful, profoundly strong — rivets our attention.  Many of the scenes, are of course, set in the dim, secretive night, intensely hushed yet throbbing with danger.  The contrast, then, with those in which the golden light of day streams onto Harriet’s face is all the more remarkable.  Nelson’s perspectives, postures, emotions, landscapes, color palette — all wrap us in Tubman’s life exquisitely.

An Author’s Note provides a nice biography of Tubman.  All of it is accessible to early elementary and up.

Here are Amazon links for all these excellent accounts of the struggle for freedom and rights for black Americans:
I Have a Dream (Book & CD)
Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Junior Library Guild Selection)
Belle, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend: A Civil Rights Story
Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book)