Title: Martin’s Big Words
Author: Doreen Rappaport
Age Category: 6 to 8 years
Genre: Historical picture books
Our Rating (out of 5):
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day—coming up on January 18th—we will be featuring some children’s books about Dr. King and others who have contributed to the long and continuing fight for the equality of African-Americans in the United States. The first book is Martin’s Big Words, the Caldecott honor and Coretta Scott King award-winning book by Doreen Rappaport (illustrations by Bryan Collier). The book tells the story of Dr. King’s life and work in a brief accessible format.
Martin Luther King Children’s Book: Subjective Appeal
This compelling children’s book about Martin Luther King Jr. will appeal to kids in several ways. First, the moral themes of justice, equality, and love on which the book focuses connect with the process of moral formation occurring in 6-to-8-year-olds. Children at this age are developing instincts about right and wrong, and good and bad, and Martin’s Big Words will engage children in this part of their experience.
Second, the simple disarming style of the book draws the young reader into the story. Although the themes that Dr. King’s life and work evoke (e.g., rights, freedom, justice, equality, etc.) can be somewhat abstract for children, Martin’s Big Words portrays them in an accessible way. For example, this children’s book opens with the following line: “Everywhere in Martin’s hometown he saw signs, WHITE ONLY.” The line is accompanied by a picture of young Martin standing with his mother next to two water fountains—one marked “White Only.” This accessible concrete portrayal brings into focus the problem Dr. King confronted, and generates curiosity about how the problem was solved.
Third, the stirring beauty of Dr. King’s words echo throughout the picture book. For example, on p.21, after a simple allusion to Dr. King’s famous speech in Washington, D.C., the book quotes: “I have a dream that one day in Alabama little black boys and black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Such brief but poignant quotations communicate to young children the beauty and power of Dr. King’s words in an accessible way.
Fourth, the book’s illustrations are captivating. Collier’s use of mixed media collage draws the reader to examine his artwork carefully, while his use of watercolor communicates subtle emotion on the faces of the book’s characters. This blend of watercolor and collage brings a visual vibrancy to this children’s book that mirrors the evolving emotional mood of the narrative. For example, the image on the page that reports Dr. King’s assassination shows the most close-up, detailed, and intense portrait of King in the book, framed by stained glass. Thin gray lines cross his face, suggesting that he is now separated from us, as if by a fence. The illustration communicates the tragedy of his death, but also the religious hope of life beyond death that filled his heart. His intense eyes seem to call us to continue his work. The beauty and power of the imagery in this children’s book fit perfectly with the beauty and power of Dr. King’s words.
Developmental Value of the Children’s Book
In addition to these factors that give the picture book subjective appeal, the book has significant developmental value. First, the book introduces children to the life of a great American, and the history of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th-century. Because of its simplicity, this kids’ book provides an excellent opportunity for adults to talk about the events and themes of the period with young children.
Second, the book will encourage the moral development of children in the 6-to-8-years age category. It brings the issues of racism, segregation, justice, and love into sharp, concrete focus for a child, stimulating moral emotions, thoughts, and perhaps even actions, thereby aiding in character formation. Just as the book’s accessible style provides an opportunity for adults to discuss the history of the period with children, it also provides an opportunity for moral teaching and learning.
Third, Martin’s Big Words provides an example of faith in action. As this children’s book makes clear in its refreshingly simple way, Dr. King’s motivation and perseverance derived from his faith in God. Dr. King’s words, as quoted on p. 20, encapsulate this thought: “Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not be stopped, because God is with this movement.” The book provides an excellent opportunity for adults to discuss with children the role of religion in both our private and public lives.
Finally, the children’s book is very creative. Both the mixed media illustrations, and the combination of simple historical narrative punctuated by powerful quotations of Dr. King’s “big words” contribute to the formation of a child’s taste for excellent, creative literature.
In sum, I give Martin’s Big Words my highest recommendation, and encourage you to find it in your local library, or to support our work by purchasing it through the links in this post or in the “6 to 8 years” category of the Children’s Books and Reviews online bookstore.
Another great children’s book for Martin Luther King Jr. day is I Have a Dream (click here for our children’s book review). Additional children’s book reviews and recommendations for Martin Luther King Jr. Day can be found at the About.com Children’s Books website.
Have you read Martin’s Big Words? What do you think? Leave a comment below and start a discussion!