During this Martin Luther King Day, I encourage you to learn both about this brilliant and courageous man, but also about others committed to the struggle for civil rights for all.
Here are 18 children’s books for little ones to teens that will help you and yours celebrate Martin Luther King Day. I’ve included not just books about MLK but others who influenced the Civil Rights Movement as well. I hope you enjoy them!
Finally, please feel free to see this Youtube link to hear the song, “King Holiday,” by The King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew. Released in 1986, it commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and features artists such as Whitney Houston, Teena Marie, Menudo, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys and Run-D.M.C.
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Written by Martin Luther King, III, illustrated by AG Ford
I Am: Martin Luther King, Jr. Written by Grace Norwich, illustrated by Elisabeth Alba
Martin’s Big Words Written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier
There are many books on the life of Rev. Dr. King; however, I specifically selected these three for very important reasons. The first is authored by his son, Martin III, and is a touching account of knowing this great leader in his role as a father. The second book is from the Scholastic series and is so comprehensive that it can be greatly interrogated and discussed, adult to child. It includes some of Rev. Dr. King’s quotes, a timeline of his life, and some rather cool facts about him. There is a glossary and significant places in his life, including his family church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, as a site to visit. The last book by Rappaport is fascinating. She uses the words of Dr. King to create a narrative of his life. Coupled with illustrations by Bryan Collier, it is no wonder that Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the recipient of numerous honors, including honoree for the Coretta Scott King and the Caldecott awards and winner of the Best Illustrated Children’s Book (2001) of The New York Times Book Review!
Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist Written by Phillip Dray, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Fighter for Justice (Famous African Americans) Written by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told Written by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen
These books tell of the extraordinary life of Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), an African-American woman who, alongside her husband, newspaper owner Ferdinand L. Barnett, was a pioneer in the battle for attaining civil rights. An investigative journalist and editor, she documented in her book, Red Record, how lynching was used in the U.S., especially in the American South and West, to control African-Americans in order to eliminate them from economic competition and progress, and to support some white theories of black inferiority and white supremacy. Wells, also active in the women’s rights movement, was a gifted and passionate orator who travelled internationally in support of her causes. Her circle of friends included Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, President William McKinley and Booker T. Washington.
Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator and Activist Written by Andrea Broadwater
Mary McLeod Bethune Written by Susan Evento
Mary McLeod Bethune Written by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Most famously known as “The First Lady of The Struggle”, Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was another leader in the fight for civil rights, especially from the vantage of education. She started her own school for African-Americans, which is currently known as Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1904. She also served as the University’s President, during a time when very few women worldwide held such a position. Because of her tireless activism in education and her stellar leadership, she was the only woman selected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to become an adviser in his Federal Council of Negro Affairs (“The Black Cabinet”), a group of African-Americans who counseled with the President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on issues affecting the black community. The Evento book is an excellent biography to introduce small readers to McLeod Bethune, one of my great inspirations. The Broadwater book is for more advanced readers and the Greenfield book is made all the more beautiful by featuring Pinkney’s inimitable artwork.
Coretta Scott Written by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Coretta Scott King: First Lady of Civil Rights Written by George Stanley, illustrated by Meryl Henderson
Coretta Scott King Written by Laura Hamilton Waxman
It has been often stated that “behind every good man is a good woman” and Rev. Dr. King liked stating that his wife was not a “good” woman but indeed a great woman. Coretta Scott King was an author and activist in her own right and highly integral to the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of her husband. A graduate of Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio and a professionally trained singer, she would incorporate her education and music into her approach to activism. She was the founder of The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, established in her husband’s memory to carry on his legacy. Although the books by Stanley and Waxman are traditional biographies, what makes the Stanley book stand out are the book’s lovely illustrations and his writing style that reads like your favorite novel. The book authored by Waxman includes a timeline, information about The King Center, and books and websites for further reading and research. However, Shange’s poem-book, written in memory of Scott King, with its gorgeous illustrations by the awesome Nelson, makes it tops for me!
Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Singer and Civil Rights Champion Written by Montrew Dunham, illustrated by Cathy Morrison
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Mahalia Jackson: Born to Sing Gospel Written by Evelyn Witter
One could hardly think of Rev. Dr. King and the famous March on Washington without bringing to mind his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, many may not be aware that Rev. Dr. King had previously prepared another speech to give at the event. Prior to taking the podium, he confided in his favorite gospel singer and great friend, Mahalia Jackson, about a dream he had and about his concerns for those in support of the march. As he began to speak, Jackson yells to him to, “Tell them about your Dream…tell them about your Dream, Martin!”, and the rest is history!
Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, was internationally acclaimed for both her achievements and work in the gospel music industry and in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott Written by Kerri O’Hern and Frank Walsh, illustrated by D. Mchargue
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Written by Connie Colwell Miller, illustrated by Dan Kalal
Jackie Robinson: Baseball’s Great Pioneer Written by Jason Glaser, illustrated by Bob Lentz
Another way to get your young ones to love reading, as Robert Trujillo recommends in this article, is through the use of graphic literary works. With these type of books, graphic images are used to further develop the theme of the authors’ works. In my professional opinion and from personal experience, graphic literary works are excellent tools to increase a reader’s visual literacy. The first two books recount the events leading to the boycott of the public transportation system in Montgomery, Alabama and its aftereffects. The book by Glaser details the life of Jackie Robinson and his contribution to civil rights, including his being court-martialed for fighting against segregation during his service in the U.S. Army. He was found not guilty! Mr. Robinson later became famous for breaking the “color barrier” in major league baseball.
There are so many celebrated individuals and unsung heroes who have been impacted by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision. Below are some honorable mentions, of varying interests and literacy levels that parents and educators may wish to share with their learners, from small children to teens:
We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Jane Addams Award Book (Awards)) Written by Cynthia Levinson
I Am Rosa Parks (Penguin Young Readers, L4) Written by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins, illustrated by Wil Clay
The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 Written by Christopher Paul
Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor Written by Larry Dane Brimner
Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America Written by Sharon Robinson
Child of the Civil Rights Movement (Junior Library Guild Selection) Written by Paula Young Shelton, illustrated by Raul Colon
Linda Brown, You Are Not Alone: The Brown V. Board of Education Decision Edited by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Curtis James
Time For Kids: Rosa Parks: Civil Rights Pioneer (Time for Kids Biographies) Written by the Editors of TIME for Kids with Karen Kellaher
Freedom Summer Written by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
One Crazy Summer Written by Rita Williams-Garcia
Finally, I would like to personally acknowledge the fabulous Miriam Wise of Westwood Library of Dayton Metro Library and the awesome Carolyn Roberts of Wright Memorial Library for assisting me in curating resources in preparation for Martin Luther King Day. To all, I strongly encourage you to please support your local library and lending collectives…they are wonderful!