On January 19 of this year, the United States will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day to honor Dr. King and his work to achieve equity for blacks people in the pre-civil rights era. Dr. King is today best known for his “I have a dream” speech during the march on Washington. And while I grew up mostly thinking of him as someone who gave speeches and led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, his most important work may have been his efforts to end the terror of living as a black person in the South.
If you would like to share a bit about King’s life and legacy with the children in your life this year, below I have reviewed six children’s books about Martin Luther King, Jr. that would be appropriate for kids from toddlers through late elementary students. Personally, I have found that reading some of these books about Martin Luther King, Jr. with my kids has been a great way to broach the topics of race and racism, and to talk about how we can be a part of creating a more just society for people of all colors.
The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore
This is a very simple book that is perfect for introducing preschoolers to Martin Luther King, Jr. The book briefly covers his childhood as the son of a preacher father and schoolteacher mother. It highlights several injustices faced by blacks in the South during the era that King grew up in. For example, unequal schools for whites and blacks, restaurants refusing to serve blacks, and the need for blacks to drink out of their own “colored” water fountains. The book then describes how King grew up to become a preacher and give his famous “I have a dream” speech. The book ends by showing how King’s dream has come true, in that blacks and whites now eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, and go to the same schools.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day by Trudi Strain Trueit
This book is part of the Rookie Read-About Holidays series from Scholastic. It features large print, straightforward text, and real photographs from the time of Dr. Martin Luther King. In this book, King is described as a brave African American leader. We learn a bit about the family he grew up in as well as the family he created with his wife, Coretta Scott King. We learn that African Americans in the 1950s did not have the same rights as whites, since they could not go to the same schools or eat in the same restaurants. The book focuses on King’s work leading marches and giving speeches. The book says that King’s words made a difference and helped to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It also shows a picture of his funeral in 1968 after he was shot and killed.
A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. by David A. Adler
This biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. includes much more detail about King’s life and accomplishments than either the books by Moore or Trueit reviewed above. This book is most appropriate for kids ages 4-8. It features watercolor illustrations of Dr. King from childhood through his death in 1968. Unlike some of the other books that discuss the creation of a holiday in King’s honor and how people celebrate the holiday, this book focuses solely on King’s life and work. Readers will learn about his famous “I have a dream” speech, King being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, and his insistence on nonviolence and on countering hate with love. The book ends by describing how King had gone to Memphis, Tennessee to march for equal pay for black and white garbage workers, but was shot and killed by James Earl Ray.
Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.? by Bonnie Bader
This is a chapter book with over 100 pages about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that is most appropriate for kids ages 8 and up. The book goes into detail about his childhood, especially his time in school and his experiences of discrimination. Eventually, and after much deliberation, King became a minister at a church in Montgomery, Alabama. The book details his work on the Montgomery bus boycott that began after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man. It also discusses other important civil rights work he was active in, and especially his insistence on peaceful, non-violent protests. The book is illustrated with a number of simple pen line drawings, and includes a timeline of King’s life at the back.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by Marc Tyler Nobleman
This book gives factual information about Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including why we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, how it became a federal holiday in the U.S., why some people were against the creation of this holiday, how people observe the holiday, and what the holiday means to people. The book also gives some information about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – who he was and the important work he did toward ending racism and discrimination. With large print and big photographs, this book is most appropriate for kids ages 5 and up.
. . . If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King by Ellen Levine
I should start this review with a caveat that this book is NOT about Dr. King. Rather, it is about what life was like in the South during the years of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968 (which is the year that Dr. King was killed). This book is long and text-heavy, so it is more appropriate for elementary students than preschoolers. The book brings up topics including segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching, so grownups will want to be prepared to discuss these issues when reading this book.
The book is organized around a series of questions about life during the civil rights movement. Some of the questions addressed by the book include: “Did black and white children play together?”, “Was segregation the same in the North and the South?”, “How did the Montgomery bus boycott start?”, “What were the Freedom Riders,” “Were children involved in civil rights protests?”, “What did segregationists say about the civil rights movement?”, “Did everyone agree with Martin Luther King?”, and “Was the civil rights movement successful?” The last page of the book includes lyrics and sheet music to the song “We Shall Overcome,” one of the best known songs of the civil rights movement.