When children first learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they are mesmerized by his resonant, booming voice espousing ideals on equality, compassion and freedom. But how many of them learn about the grueling behind-the-scenes work it took to craft those famous speeches?
This MLK Day, consider introducing the children in your life to “A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation,” a beautiful picture book written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (recipient of the Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement). While the book captures King’s speech during the 1963 March on Washington, it opens with the night before that historic event. On the first page, we see an oversized illustration of King holding a No. 2 pencil between tense fingers. A look of deep concentration furrows his brows. His eyes seem to be looking into the future. Next to him is a torn page from a yellow notepad. It is blank.
Wittenstein writes that King once said that the hardest part about giving a sermon,“… is knowing where to end. It’s terrible to be circling up there without a place to land.”
With the introduction of this literary problem, the story delves right into the night of Aug. 27, 1963, when King asked other civil rights activists and speech writers, including Bayard Rustin, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, to help him with his speech. In the lobby of the Willard Hotel, “where Abraham Lincoln once stood, a meeting of the minds took place.”
As King and his comrades struggle through the late night and into the morning, the pencil-and-watercolor illustrations capture their facial expressions and hand movements. Throughout, Pinkney incorporates a collage of photographs and drawings (the front of a church, torn pieces of colorful fabric, a stained-glass window, images of historical figures) to create a sort of quilt story of what and who it took to help King become the orator and activist he was.
Parents, teachers and young readers will get caught up in the peopled river that led to this groundbreaking speech, including the moment when Mahalia Jackson shouted to King after the first half of his speech, helping him raise it to a higher level. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she shouted.
“A Place to Land” is a reminder of the work behind that dream, the hope it inspired and the distance yet to go in seeing it fully realized.