Diana and I are honored to be part of Random House’s Celebrate the Civil Rights Movement Blog Tour in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Although we usually write about young adult novels and authors, we feel particularly compelled to share this book, because our great-uncle Ivan McRae, Sr. was present at the March on Washington, a fact our mother loved to tell us when we were growing up. Coincidentally, our mother, the daughter of Ivan’s older brother, along with our father and older brother (then only 18 months) immigrated from Colombia to Washington D.C. a few months after the March. She told me once about hearing the African-American nurses’ aides at the hospital where she worked discussing the March and what it meant to them.
As Latin Americans, our parents knew the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, two days short of the 50th Anniversary of that historic day, we urge you to read “I Have a Dream” picture book!
“I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
paintings by Kadir Nelson
Watch the award-winning illustrator discuss how the speech inspired his artistic process to illustrate King’s powerful words with his paintings.
Here’s what my books editor at Common Sense Media had to say in her 5-star review: “With vivid panoramas and moving close-ups, award-winning author-illustrator Kadir Nelson amplifies the meaning of King’s words in close-up portraits of his face as well as pictures of black and white kids and adults together, holding hands and standing up for freedom, justice, and equality. Even if you feel you’ve heard this speech a million times, Nelson’t stunning full-color paintings give it new life, underscoring the intensity and raw truth of King’s message. The pictures are big and bold and the text spare, so even little kids can grasp the historical moment and its lasting impact.”
I have been thinking about tragedy a lot this year. What is a tragedy? What’s the difference between a literary tragedy and a real-life tragedy? So when Random House Children’s Books asked its authors to write something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, that is the word that popped into my head.
At the mere mention of the speech, and without having to reread it, phrases popped into my mind: not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character; a beautiful symphony of brotherhood; Free at last! Free at last! I’m not sure when I first heard it. I know it was before third grade because I was given an assignment that year to write a poem about the speech. More words about words. And then through all my years of school and adulthood, the speech would pop in and out, an example of what we should all be striving for, and also a startling reminder that the amazing man who spoke those words was killed.
Duncan Meade, one of the main characters in my novel, defines tragedy simply as when something bad happens. Yes, I agree with that. But there is more to it to. Merriam-Webster offers a six part definition which boils down to: a tale typically describing the downfall of a great man and/ or a disastrous event. Without question both of those explanations pertain to the end of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. He was shot down when he was a young man trying to change the world for the better. He was taken away from his wife and young children. But what about the speech? I kept coming back to it. In many ways his written words have transcended the tragedy of real life.
There are some orations that have been given over time that become part of us. When we hear their titles, or a few rhythmic words, they flood into our minds. I would argue that most Americans – young and old – could say at least a tiny bit of the “I Have a Dream” speech with little prompting, and every time it carries a very real sense of uplifting emotion. To me, that is one of the most powerful tools in the world. To be able to reach people by what you say and what you write. This was not his only outstanding speech. Shortly before he died he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, touching ironically on the idea of a long life, which in the end he would not have.
Imagine the power of the words he never got to write or preach. That might be one of the greatest tragedies, hinted at by the triumphant legacy of this speech. What might he have said the following week or the following year if he had not been killed that day in Memphis? What unknown phrases might be in our heads moving us toward a better place? We know the power of “I Have a Dream.” But of those unwritten sermons, we can only wonder. –Elizabeth LaBan
Another recommendation to celebrate the Civil Rights Movement
And although it’s not published by Random House, we’d like to also recommend Representative John Lewis’ new graphic novel “March: Book 1,” a collaboration between the Congressman, his office’s head of communications Andrew Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell. Available via Comixology, the book tell the story of Lewis’ early years as a share-cropper’s son and his precocious preaching skills that led him to become one of the young leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Readers see how Lewis met other Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson and what it was like for young black (and white) students to prepare for the harassment they’d face during the lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts and marches.
Lewis is the only speaker from the March on Washington who is still living, and he’s, in our opinion, one of the United States’ living legends. So while your younger kids will love the read-aloud of Kadir Nelson’s picture book, we highly recommend “March” for older readers, especially those who enjoy graphic novels.