being a teacher, books, Literacy, picture books

Great Picture Books for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr day, held on the third Monday of January every year, is rapidly approaching.  This year, I will be in class teaching, last year I was not.  And while I believe that we should not just teach about MLK Jr or any other history related to the civil rights movement on this day, I find that many look for resources for this day in particular.  I, of course, have been searching for picture books to use with my students as we try to learn more about our country’s past and think of the changes we can make right now.

Some of these I already have, others are on my much too long wish list.  One day they shall all find their rightful place in our classroom.  Some of these are directly related to the life of MLK Jr, others are related to the movement, but they will all add to our knowledge of America then so we can better understand America now.

From Amazon:

It was February 1, 1960.
They didn’t need menus. Their order was simple.

A doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the momentous Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, when four college students staged a peaceful protest that became a defining moment in the struggle for racial equality and the growing civil rights movement.

From Amazon:

It’s December 1, 1955.

A boy and his mother are riding the bus in Montgomery, Alabama like any other day—way in the back of the bus. The boy passes time by watching his marble roll up and down the aisle with the motion of the bus…

Until a big commotion breaks out from way up front.

With simple words and powerful illustrations, Aaron Reynolds and Coretta Scott King medalist Floyd Cooper recount the pivotal arrest of Rosa Parks at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.

I have cherished my copy of A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Eric Velasquez  for years.  This is also a great picture book for teaching theme and inference.

From Amazon:

There’s a sweet, sweet smell in the air as two young girls sneak out of their house, down the street, and across town to where men and women are gathered, ready to march for freedom and justice. Inspired by countless children and young adults who took a stand, two Coretta Scott King honorees offer a heart-lifting glimpse of children’s roles in the civil rights movement.

I stumbled across Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton & Raul Colon and have used it with the students as a way to discuss perspective.  I loved the “regular” side of MLK Jr that it presents.

From Amazon:

In this Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year, Paula Young Shelton, daughter of Civil Rights activist Andrew Young, brings a child’s unique perspective to an important chapter in America’s history. Paula grew up in the deep south, in a world where whites had and blacks did not. With an activist father and a community of leaders surrounding her, including Uncle Martin (Martin Luther King), Paula watched and listened to the struggles, eventually joining with her family—and thousands of others—in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

This post would be woefully incomplete without the magnificent picture book Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes.  Stunning is a good way to describe and the awards on its cover backs me up.

From Amazon:

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring vibrant mixed-media art full of intricate detail, Voice of Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with a message of hope, determination, and strength.


Can there be a picture book list without Jacqueline Woodson’s work on it?  The Other Side illustrated by E.B. Lewis is sure to start a poignant conversation with kids.

From Amazon:

Clover’s mom says it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Anna lives. But the two girls strike up a friendship, and get around the grown-ups’ rules by sitting on top of the fence together.

March On!  The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris and illustrated by London Ladd is on my wish list as well.

From Amazon:

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, sister remembers the March on Washington.

From Dr. Martin Luther King’s sister, the definitive tribute to the man, the march, and the speech that changed a nation.

White Water by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein, illustrated by Shadra Strickland is a picture book I have used several times with students as we have worked through our Notice and Note sign posts.  This is another powerful story that lead to more questions that answers.

From Amazon:

It’s a scorching hot day, and going into town with Grandma is one of Michael’s favorite things. When the bus pulls up, they climb in and pay their fare, get out, walk to the back door, and climb in again. By the time they arrive in town, Michael’s throat is as dry as a bone, so he runs to the water fountain. But after a few sips, the warm, rusty water tastes bad. Why is the kid at the “Whites Only” fountain still drinking? Is his water clear and refreshingly cool? No matter how much trouble Michael might get into, he’s determined to find out for himself.

Another eye opening book for students is Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey with Gwen Strauss and illustrated by Floyd Cooper.  

From Amazon:
Ruth was so excited to take a trip in her family’s new car! In the early 1950s, few African Americans could afford to buy cars, so this would be an adventure. But she soon found out that black travelers weren’t treated very well in some towns. Many hotels and gas stations refused service to black people. Daddy was upset about something called Jim Crow laws…

Finally, a friendly attendant at a gas station showed Ruth’s family The Green Book. It listed all of the places that would welcome black travelers. With this guidebook–and the kindness of strangers–Ruth could finally make a safe journey from Chicago to her grandma’s house in Alabama.

Another Jacqueline Woodson book that has been well loved in our library, This is the Rope always makes me think.  Illustrated by James Ransome I love the simple but oh so powerful story it tells of the rope passed through generations, witness to their history.

From Amazon:

The story of one family’s journey north during the Great Migration starts with a little girl in South Carolina who finds a rope under a tree one summer. She has no idea the rope will become part of her family’s history. But for three generations, that rope is passed down, used for everything from jump rope games to tying suitcases onto a car for the big move north to New York City, and even for a family reunion where that first little girl is now a grandmother.

I may as well add one other of my favorite Jacqueline Woodson books; Show Way illustrated by Hudson Talbott.  As a mother, I cry when I read this picture book and think of the generations that have passed before us and the injustices some have faced.

From Amazon:

Soonie’s great-grandma was just seven years old when she was sold to a big plantation without her ma and pa, and with only some fabric and needles to call her own. She pieced together bright patches with names like North Star and Crossroads, patches with secret meanings made into quilts called Show Ways — maps for slaves to follow to freedom. When she grew up and had a little girl, she passed on this knowledge. And generations later, Soonie — who was born free — taught her own daughter how to sew beautiful quilts to be sold at market and how to read.

One of our top picture books of 2015Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah WInter and Shane W. Evans is story telling at its finest.  In fact, I used this as a mentor text for when my own students wrote their picture books to show how many facts can be woven together.

From Amazon:
An elderly African American woman, en route to vote, remembers her family’s tumultuous voting history in this picture book publishing in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As Lillian, a one-hundred-year-old African American woman, makes a “long haul up a steep hill” to her polling place, she sees more than trees and sky—she sees her family’s history. She sees the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and her great-grandfather voting for the first time. She sees her parents trying to register to vote. And she sees herself marching in a protest from Selma to Montgomery.

There are so many more that could be highlighted but I wanted to leave it up to others to share their favorites.  We have a moral obligation in our classroom to discuss the past of the United States and these picture books help us start those conversations.

Leave it up The Nerdy Book Club to add more books to my wish list.  The First Step by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by E.B. Lewis just came out last week and looks like a must add to any classroom library.

From Amazon:

In 1847, a young African American girl named Sarah Roberts was attending a school in Boston. Then one day she was told she could never come back. She didn’t belong. The Otis School was for white children only.

Sarah deserved an equal education, and the Roberts family fought for change. They made history. Roberts v. City of Boston was the first case challenging our legal system to outlaw segregated schools. It was the first time an African American lawyer argued in a supreme court.

These first steps set in motion changes that ultimately led to equality under the law in the United States. Sarah’s cause was won when people–black and white–stood together and said, No more. Now, right now, it is time for change!

1 thought on “Great Picture Books for Martin Luther King Jr. Day”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s