April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Great Books for Celebrating Martin Luther King Day

Held on the third Monday of January, this national holiday celebrates the life, work, and legacy of civil rights leader and humanitarian Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, MLK Day falls on Monday, January 21, 2013, the same day that President Barack Obama will take the oath of office for his second term. Stunningly illustrated, eloquently told, and perfect for sharing aloud, these outstanding offerings provide engaging introductions to the man and his achievements.

The books also make excellent resources for Black History Month and can be used year round to enhance civil rights and multicultural studies. Keep them on hand to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28.

Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend.  By Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, illustrations by John Holyfield. Candlewick. 2011. Reinforced Trade Edition $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4058-3.

Gr 1-4—In this fact-based tale, elderly Miz Pettway tells young Alex about the important role played by her mule in the struggle for civil rights in her poor African American community. Far from fancy, “but strong and steady, and stubborn,” like the Alabama town’s humble inhabitants, Belle hauled a wagonload of “Benders”—empowered by a visit from Dr. King—on a day-long trip to Camden to register to vote, and later on, was summoned to pull the farm cart bearing the great man’s casket through the streets of Atlanta. An accessible and affecting look at history, told in down-to-earth language and illustrated with lush acrylic paintings.

I Have a DreamBy Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrations by Kadir Nelson. w/CD. Random/Schwartz & Wade. Trade $18.99. ISBN 978-0-375-85887-1; Library Edition $21.99. ISBN 978-0-375-95887-8; ebook $10.99. ISBN 978-0-375-98772-4.
Gr 2 Up–Insightful, articulate, and heart-stirring, Dr. King’s famous oration is as inspiring today as when first delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago. Nelson’s majestic oil paintings provide a magnificent accompaniment to an excerpt from the speech, showcasing broad scenes of the historic gathering, captivating close-ups of the speaker, and uplifting images that visually convey Dr. King’s dream of “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” 

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World. By Christine King Farris, illustrations by London Ladd. Scholastic. 2008. Trade $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-03537-8.

Gr 1-5—Writing with unassuming eloquence, Farris provides a compelling look at the March on Washington, effectively balancing fact-filled descriptions of events with unique personal perceptions and pride for a brother who was able to “…touch so many people in such a big way.” London’s painterly illustrations provide you-are-there snapshots that both portray the historical setting and convey the participants’ soaring emotions.

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By Doreen Rappaport, illustrations by Brian Collier. Hyperion. 2001. Trade $19.99. ISBN 978-078680714-7; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-1423106357.

Gr 2-5—This picture book biography pairs spare paragraphs about Dr. King’s life and achievements with pertinent and profound quotations taken from his writings and speeches. Imbued with the sharp-edged shapes and luminous colors of a stained-glass window, Collier’s breath-taking watercolor and cut-paper collage illustrations combine realism with heart-lifting spirituality. A beautifully written and visually striking introduction to the man and his world-changing wisdom.

Martin Luther King Jr.: A King Family Tribute. Angela Farris Watkins, editor. Abrams. 2013. Trade $18.95. ISBN 978-1-4197-0269-3.

Gr 4 Up–Memories, stories, and reflections about “ML,” as he was called by his relatives, are paired with never-before-published family photos in this scrapbook-style tribute. A celebration of life that is warm, personal, and inspiring.

My Uncle Martin’s Words for America. By Angela Farris Watkins, illustrations by Eric Velasquez. Abrams. 2011. Reinforced Trade Edition $19.95. ISBN 978-1-41970022-4.

K-Gr 4—Told from the perspective of his young niece, Angela, this inviting picture book describes how Dr. King used “words of love” to fight for change. Watkins’s crystalline first-person narrative introduces watershed moments in the Civil Rights Movement, highlights Dr. King’s role as leader, and incorporates phrases from his speeches. Presented in bold lettering, terms such as “nonviolence,” “justice,” and “brotherhood” resound throughout the text and are explained with child-friendly definitions and examples. The realistic paintings dramatically depict events with a mix of vivid action scenes and elegant portraits. Watkins’s companion volume, My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart (Abrams, 2010), also handsomely illustrated by Velasquez, provides an intimate and affectionate look at Uncle M.L. through the eyes of a child.

We March. By Shane W. Evans. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter. 2012. Trade $16.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-539-1; ebook $9.99. ISBN 9781466810846.

PreS-Gr 3—The members of an African American family rise at daybreak, pray and make preparations at their church, and journey to Washington D.C. to join with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds in a hope-filled “march to justice,/to freedom,/to our dreams.” Told in simple first-person plural text and illustrated with radiant double-page paintings, this powerful picture book reels in young readers and makes them part of an historic moment.

What Was Your Dream, Dr. King? And other Questions about Martin Luther King Jr. by Mary Kay Carson, illustrations by Jim Madsen. Sterling. 2013. Trade $12.95. ISBN 978-1-4027-9622-7; pap. $5.95. ISBN 978-1-4027-9045-4.

Gr 1-4—Utilizing an inviting question-and-answer format, Carson presents an overview of Dr. King’s life, endeavors, and beliefs, providing historical context with clear explanations of segregation and defining moments in the civil rights movement. Straightforward and accessible, the text is sprinkled with primary quotes and accompanied by sepia-toned paintings.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. Thanks for this excellent list of resources. Joining it, two weeks after this year’s MLK Day, is “What Was the March on Washington?,” inaugurating Grosset & Dunlap’s What Was series.

  2. Thanks for your generous review and roundup, Joy.
    If anyone wants to hear, listen, or read MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, I posted links to it on a blog I contribute to. And just in case any of your readers are teachers or tutors looking for related activities, there is a page of writing prompts there, too.
    Thanks again!


  1. […] wagonload of “Benders”—empowered by a visit from Dr. King—on a day-long trip to Camden to register to vote, and later on, was summoned to pull the farm cart bearing the great man’s casket through […]