One of my favorite ways to introduce new concepts to children is through picture books. These are especially helpful with historical figures, because sometimes the far and away can be tough for little ones to grasp. Stories bring us all in, develop our capacity for empathy, and show us a life we might not otherwise be able to imagine. Add evocative illustrations, and children have something tangible to help them understand eras and circumstances they do not know. And picture books aren’t just for kindergartners anymore; they’ve achieved new levels of sophistication and artistry. Several on this list are great for reaching adolescents as well as elementary aged children.
A few MLK books I love:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kadir Nelson
Excerpts from the famous speech, beautifully paired with intense, emotional paintings from Caldecott winner Kadir Nelson. The entire transcript is printed at the end, and the book comes with a CD recording. It really is worth at least an annual listen to hear that melodious, powerful voice. Together, the book and CD comprise a great introduction to the life and work of Dr. King.
Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier
A wonderfully accessible biography that uses quotations from Dr. King to frame his journey, from a young boy in the segregated south to the man who used his “big words” to change the world. Collier’s watercolors and collage portray King’s strength and poise, and he incorporates stained glass windows as a visual representation of Dr. King’s life.
Christine King Farris and Chris Soentpiet
This primary source account demonstrates the impact of childhood experiences in the development of Dr. King’s political consciousness. It also helps children relate to the historical figure of Dr. King because it shows his young life as not so different from their own. Watercolor portraits and a few photographs capture the King’s family home, their neighborhood, and their church.
Shane W. Evans
In simple, direct prose, and bold double page illustrations, this story emphasizes the grassroots aspect of the movement and the way the community found unity in resistance. The ordinary people, including parents and children, who marched with Dr. King and heard him speak his celebrated words that August day. Perfect for starting conversations about children’s involvement and perspective in the movement.
Why not use MLK Day to learn more about other key players and moments in the Civil Rights era?
A few other books I love:
Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier
Giovanni’s poetic words and Collier’s cut-paper illustrations combine to create a narrative more accurate than the one we often hear about Parks. This books references Emmett Till, the NAACP Youth Council, and the Women’s Political Council and makes it clear that her actions were more intentional than we are often led to believe.
Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
This wife/husband team has produced several classic picture books about African American history, and Sit-In is one of the best. It brings the story of the 1960 Greensboro Sit-ins and its message of nonviolent resistance to today’s generation, wonderfully depicting the determination and hope of those four college students in North Carolina.
Robert Coles and George Ford
If your children aren’t familiar with Ruby Bridges, she will likely be their hero after this story. The young girl who pioneered desegregation in 1960 New Orleans, Ruby Bridges embodied the strength and compassion we all hope to find in ourselves and cultivate in our kids – and she was six. She’s also still alive and fighting for the cause today.
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Inspired by the instructional comic, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, Congressman Lewis coauthored three graphic novels that chronicle his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. He begins with the Selma to Montgomery marches on Bloody Sunday, juxtaposed with the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration. By showcasing the dynamic role young people have played in changing this country, March will hopefully incite the same spirit in today’s youth.