August 21, 2017

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Exclusive Cover Reveal: James L. Swanson’s “Chasing King’s Killer”

James L. Swanson’s latest, Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassin, out next spring from Scholastic, marks the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

There are over 80 photographs, captions, bibliography, various source notes, and index included in this new astonishing account of the assassination of America’s most beloved and celebrated civil rights leader. As he did in his best-selling books Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and The President Has Been Shot, Swanson will transport readers back to one of the most shocking, sad, and terrifying events in U.S. history.

Before we reveal the cover for Chasing King’s Killer, let’s dive deeper into Swanson’s research process, inspiration, and his rationale for the cover images used. The book will be published in Spring 2018.

What inspired you to tackle a biography on Martin Luther King Jr. and in the same format as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer?

The inspiration began in my childhood, when my mother led me to a floor-to-ceiling closet that contained several shelves piled high with vintage historical newspapers, magazines, and picture books, documenting the tumultuous events of 1960s America, including the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  I paged through old Life magazines, opened long-folded newspapers, their pages browned and brittle, and read their frightening headlines. I wanted to learn more. For years, I have collected the books, documents, artifacts, and original sources that inspired me to tell the story of the last days of Martin Luther King.

I wrote Chasing King’s Killer in the same style as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer because my books are about turning points in American history—about sudden, dramatic moments when everything changes overnight, and nothing is ever the same. I try to tell these stories through action-packed, exciting “you are there,” ticking-clock narratives. The books turn readers into time travelers and invite them to imagine what it must have been like to live in the time of Abraham Lincoln, or in the time of Martin Luther King Jr.

Historical context is important. Just as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is about more than the death of Abraham Lincoln, and The President Has Been Shot! is about more than the last days of John F. Kennedy, Chasing King’s Killer is about more than the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The story opens a decade before the tragedy, when King survived a shocking, near-fatal stabbing and went on to become one of the greatest civil rights leaders in American history. I want readers to know King first as a boy, then as a young man, and finally as a leader on the world’s stage.

Readers will accompany him on his amazing 10-year journey to greatness. And then they will travel back in time to April 1968 and King’s fateful trip to Memphis. They will also meet a mysterious, lifelong criminal whose 1967 escape from prison sent him on a yearlong journey that climaxed with the murder of Dr. King, a dramatic escape, and one of the biggest manhunts in American history. I set the whole story against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s—the civil rights movement, the FBI harassment of King, the Vietnam War, the counterculture, and the race to the moon.

Chasing King’s Killer tells the dramatic story of King’s last year, including the compelling events leading up to his killing. Part of the pathos and excitement of the story come from the changes the country was going through at the time. The story could have turned out differently had King not gone to Memphis, had Ray not escaped from prison, had so many other pieces of the story fallen exactly into place. The story gives young adults an idea of what it was like to have lived then, in the late 1960s. The places and the murder scene are meticulously recreated in diagrams that allow readers to understand the events of the day of King’s killing. I combed through thousands of vintage photographs of the people and places and documents essential to the story, selecting those integral the storytelling.

Photo courtesy of Scholastic

Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?

To research Chasing King’s Killer, I immersed myself in the documents, photographs, and music of the era. I studied biographies, memoirs, and histories, but also newspapers and magazines to capture the mood of the era. I combed through thousands of images that tell the story of the turbulent era of civil rights marches and anti–Vietnam War protests. I located original examples the four different types of FBI “wanted” posters for James Earl Ray. Each one tells a story. All of these sources put me into the mindset of what it was like to live through the tragic events of 1968. I did as much research as I would do for a book for an adult audience. I researched everything from slavery and the Civil War to the history of the civil rights movement and the pop culture of 1960s America. All told, I used several hundred sources and several thousand photographs. Some photographs will be familiar, others are seldom seen. All are incredibly moving. I think we achieved seamless matching of text and images.

What was the hardest part?

There were two difficult parts. First, telling the story in a suspenseful and exciting way—readers must care about King—despite the fact that many readers will already know the final outcome of the story. So it was a challenge to introduce King as a real man who they [will] care about, not as an abstract character in a story. The second difficulty was that, as I got to know King as a man, husband, father, preacher, and leader, it became more poignant that the book would have to end in tragedy. I knew that I would have to say goodbye to Martin Luther King at the end, and it was heartbreaking.

How did you approach the subject—taking on the search for King’s killer—without romanticizing or glamorizing it?

I never lost track of who the hero of the story is: Martin Luther King Jr. He was one of the bravest, most courageous men in U.S. history. Throughout his career, he was under the constant threat of violence and death. His home was bombed, he was threatened by mobs, he was hit stones and bricks, he was jailed dozens of times, he was insulted, and yet he never gave up. Today, 50 years later, he remains a great American hero.

The assassin James Earl was different kind of man. There was nothing redeeming or admirable about him as a man or as an assassin. There was no glamour to committing the heinous act he is responsible for. In an instant he changed not only the lives of a family, who lost a husband and father, but he also ended the life of the charismatic leader of the civil rights movement. Despite the drama and suspense of the story—from the details of the crime to the events of the escape and capture of the assassin—I do not invite readers to sympathize with Ray. James Earl Ray was a lifelong criminal, a racist, and a murderer. Yes, I want readers to know and understand him—but never to admire him. The contrast between Ray and King could not be more extreme.

Why did you and the design team decide to showcase these photos as the book’s cover?

The first may be one of most shocking photos in U.S. history and is the iconic, visual symbol of the event. It was taken on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel moments after Dr. King was shot. King had been standing there alone. Seconds later, several of his aides rushed to his side and a photographer captured them as they pointed in the direction that the fatal shot came from. From the start, we knew that this photo had to be on the cover. We printed it in black-and-white to emphasize the documentary feel of it.

But the book is about more than King in death, so we did not want the assassination to dominate the whole cover. The book is also about King in life. So we chose a photo to reflect that half the book is about the living King. We looked at hundreds of images of Martin Luther King Jr. and chose an emotional photo of him lost in thought to evoke the power of his mind. We show it in color, and not black-and-white, to depict King in life, to make a statement that, while the book is about a sad and tragic death, it is also about a great life.

For your viewing pleasure, the cover of Swanson’s next informational text for teens:

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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