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Picture Book Review for MLK Day – A Place to Land

A PLACE TO LAND:

Martin Luther King Jr.

and the Speech That Inspired a Nation

Written by Barry Wittenstein

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

(Neal Porter Books/Holiday House; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

A Place to Land book cover

 

A 2019 Booklist Editors’ Choice
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”, will never cease to give me chills or bring tears to my eyes so I’m grateful for the meticulously researched backstory behind the composition thoughtfully presented in A Place to Land. While elementary-school-aged children may be familiar with King’s speech, they may not know how long it took to write, that it was delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, or that one of the most quoted parts of it was shared extemporaneously at the prompting of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. In this enlightening picture book, readers are privy to fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments that demonstrate King’s writing process and how his background as a preacher played a part in its creation.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 1
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

Over the years I’ve reviewed myriad wonderful MLK Jr. books and A Place to Land, like those others, has focused on an impactful point in King’s life and magnified it so we may understand it better. Wittenstein’s lyrical writing shines and flows like a King speech, pulling us in with each new line. I found myself repeating many of the sentences aloud, marveling at what he chose to keep on the page and wondering how much he had to leave out. The revealing information Wittenstein details will inspire readers to reexamine well known orations throughout history, looking at their content through a new lens.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 2
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

The story unfolds in three significant locations, the Willard Hotel in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial, and at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama just prior to, during and some years after King’s speech. Historical figures are woven into most of Pinkney’s spreads. Readers will be prompted to learn more about every individual noted and the comprehensive back matter provides the resources to do so.

I hadn’t known that the “I Have a Dream” speech was written at the Willard nor did I know how many influential colleagues contributed during the meeting of the minds prior to King’s drafting of the speech. “So Martin did what great men do. He asked for guidance.” I also hadn’t realized that MLK Jr. practically pulled an all-nighter writing it after the lengthy and honest discussions. How he managed to make such a powerful presentation after barely any sleep is beyond me, but clearly his adrenaline kicked in and his natural oratory skills took command at that lectern.

As a former speech writer, my favorite part of A Place to Land was reading about King’s exhaustive efforts to craft the speech late into the night while trying to integrate all the input he’d been given earlier in the meeting. In his message he wanted to convey the goals of his non-violent civil rights movement and continue to push for racial equality and the end of discrimination. He was also determined to honor those who came before him and those who would carry on his dreams. “… and so many others, their faces forever seared into his memory.”

King found himself “Writing. Rewriting. Rephrasing, …” and then practicing his delivery before succumbing to sleep. I felt as though I were in the room with him, knowing as he did that there was an important element currently eluding him that was still to come.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 3
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

Pinkney’s outstanding collage-style illustrations are so fitting for the subject matter. He seamlessly blends images of civil rights advocates with elements of the movement and the era. As I turned the pages, I couldn’t wait to see what people would appear and against what backdrop. It’s hard to imagine any other art marrying so well with Wittenstein’s or MLK Jr.’s words. I resoundingly recommend A Place to Land for parents, teachers and librarians. It’s a movingly written, motivating, educational and timeless read that I will definitely revisit.

Visit the publisher’s website page here for bonus material.

Click here for a roundup of more recommended reads for MLK Day 2020.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Kids Picture Book Biography – Feed Your Mind by Jen Bryant

FEED YOUR MIND: A STORY OF AUGUST WILSON

Written by Jen Bryant

Illustrated by Cannaday Chapman

(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

Jen Bryant, who has won numerous awards for her books for children, which include biographies of poet William Carlos Williams, and Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, has written the biography of August Wilson. The picture book, presented in two acts and 48 pages, is an inspiring and lyrical introduction to the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Black playwright who died in 2005.

Young readers are probably unfamiliar with Wilson’s work and Bryant writes mostly about his early years at school and the beginning of his career.

 

FYM Interior2
Interior spread from Feed Your Mind written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

Frederick August Kittel, Jr. was raised with a sister and single mother, who cleaned houses. His mother, Daisy, made sure Frederick learned to read, telling him, “If you can read, you can do anything – you can be anything.” Bryant tells about the racism Wilson and his family experiencedbrick-throwing, name-calling, fights, and accusations of cheatingdriving Wilson from school after school, setting him on a course of self-education, reading all day in libraries. Wilson finds the “universe opens wide” when, as a teenager, he encounters Black authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

His first paid writing job was completing his sister’s homework; he bought a used typewriter, composing poems after he finished washing dishes at the diner. The talk and stories of Black men in his community, many working at menial jobs, provided the dialogue for his poems and plays. Working odd jobs in a soup kitchen, Wilson listened to stories. “Who’s there? What are they saying … and why?” he asked himself, and these figures became characters in his dramas.

 

FYM Interior3
Interior spread from Feed Your Mind written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

Debut illustrator Cannaday Chapman uses a limited color palette of earth tones to show the expressions on Wilson’s face and his connection to his environment.

Bryant includes a detailed Author’s Note explaining her interest in Wilson, her extensive research, and her process for writing the book. Students will enjoy her description of spreading her pages down her hallway. Feed Your Mind is an important book about an author of color, who endured poverty and racism, and whose life shows the power of literacy and community.

  • Guest review by Julia Wasson, veteran educator and curriculum developer.

Read another picture book biography here.

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Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin

MUDDY: THE STORY OF BLUES LEGEND MUDDY WATERS
Written by Michael Mahin
Illustrated by Evan Turk
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Booklist

 

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters book cover

 

Don’t miss the biography of the man and his music in Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters.

The story of blues legend Muddy Waters is told in prose which reads like one of his songs, filled with both sweetness and longing. Author Michael Mahin does a fine job of recreating for a young reader the life of Muddy Waters from his childhood days to one of the high points of his career, the creation of his first album.

All along the way through the book, beside those sweet and longing words of the author, are Evan Turk’s amazing illustrations that take your breath away. They look like the blues! They look like Muddy Water’s story and some of his soul. Strong lines paint the bold story of the legend, and color reaches out to convey the emotion that Muddy was going through at different times in his life. Truly these are some of the most unique illustrations to appear in a picture book. The people in Muddy’s life reach high in church, bow low over a harmonica, every movement is full of energy. Muddy’s grandmother appears as a larger than life character. She takes up so much room in one memorable two-page spread that one cannot escape the dominant presence she must have had in Muddy’s life. There is some kind of motion everywhere, in the playing of music, in the form of Muddy’s grandmother as she hangs her laundry while dancing to Muddy’s music, and in the movement of Muddy himself as he plays and sings.

 

Int art from Muddy by Michael Mahin with art by Evan Turk
Interior spread from Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin with illustrations by Evan Turk, Atheneum BYR ©2017.

 

The often repeated words, “But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.” tell the story of a man who would not be dictated to by any boss but himself, and who successfully turned that persistence into a sound that the music world had never heard before, a precursor to rock and roll.  This is a story that shows a child that sometimes staying true to yourself is one of the hardest battles, but ultimately one of the best. Muddy never gave up on his music the way he heard it, never listening to naysayers. All of us have something like that call in our lives. Muddy teaches us through his experiences to listen to that call, be true to it and to never stop believing that one day it will enable each of us to add a new sound to the world. One passage accompanied by a striking depiction of Muddy singing reads like music:

He called up the sticky heat of a summer

night, the power of love, and the need

for connection in a world that was

so good at pulling people apart.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters is an incredibly powerful picture book in every respect and is highly recommended. At the bookstore where I work, this is a staff favorite because we all agree that it is one of the most extraordinary picture books we have seen this year. Muddy is a wonderful introduction to the life of a legend as well as an inspirational and evocative experience of art so well matched to the man and his blues that you can almost hear the music playing.

This hardcover picture book will be available September 5, 2017 but can be pre-ordered now.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

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