Martin Luther King, Jr., Children’s Biography
Children’s biographies about current
music, movie, and sports stars, along with a handful of historical and
especially quasi-legendary figures (for example, Jesse James or Pocahontas)
assume an audience motivated by specific personal interests or a desire
for entertainment. For the most part, however, children’s biography is
a good-for-you-genre: a type of book read for occasional school assignments
meant to enrich the regular curriculum. Didactic biographies are often
heavy on isolated facts (or purported facts; a good many children’s biographies
are sloppily researched) and/or uplifting lessons. Many didactic biographies
harness a person’s life to a good-for-you lesson. For the purposes of
moral instruction geared to ideas of childhood innocence, such books tend
to sacrifice complexity (often suppressing inconvenient facts) to a moral.
Thus, for example, the complexity of George Washington Carver’s life
is smoothed out to provide a memorable lesson of a good, unassuming man
who, despite racism, did great things with peanuts. Alternatively, good-for-you
children’s biographies may simply list facts. Such didactic biographies
tend to lack a coherent narrative — fragmentary and episodic, the text
jumps from point to point without discernible connections. (“Harriet
Tubman led many slaves to freedom. Later she was a spy for the Union Army.”)
Perhaps the most interesting element of
children’s biographies is that they tend to give more scope to the childhood
of famous people than do biographies for adults. In some cases, the childhood
is reduced to a foreshadowing of the famous future: we see that, even as
a child, George Washington Carver displayed scientific interest and that,
from the start, Amelia Earhart was adventurous. But in some cases the childhood
of the famous person provides a distinctive means of entering into the
texture of a life. Some of the best children’s biographies are picture
books — books in which the art, instead of serving merely as an illustration
of the written text, is central, intimately interwoven with the story told
in words. In such books, one particular event or a related set of events
may stand in for a life as a whole. Often, but not always, the story that
is chosen is the story for which the person is most famous (e.g., Rosa
Parks keeping her seat on the bus, Helen Keller at the water pump). More
original picture books choose childhood moments that speak to readers’
understanding of a life in a fresh way, not reducing the life to a particular
event or to a prefiguring of that famous moment. Instead, they offer an
invitation to readers that engages their interest in a storied life.
The danger in the dozens of children’s
biographies about Martin Luther King, Jr., is that they will fixate on
his “I Have a Dream” speech and his messages about love and colorblindness,
ignoring everything else that he said and everything else that he stood
for and struggled for. In rendering a toothless version of the “lesson”
of his life, such biographies flatten out both the man and his context;
they serve up a plaster saint whose struggles are either sentimental or
superhuman. In the former case, the message is bland and generic: “we
should be fair and unbiased.” In the latter case, readers may be left
with the impression that King’s leadership was so individual, so unimaginably
heroic, that no other civil rights leaders deserve our attention. We are
seduced into the question, “Will there never be another Martin Luther
King?” Many such biographies threaten to cocoon King, wrapping him up
in the vestments of virtue and storing him safely in the dead past, as
if the civil rights goals for which he stood had long ago been fully accomplished.
Among the questions to ask about children’s
biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., are the following:
Which story or stories is/are chosen to represent
the life? What are some of the consequences of these choices? For example,
does the story invite readers into exploring further stories, close off
insight at an iconic level (reverence), underscore readers’ connections
with King, show King in relationship to other important civil rights figures,
address his struggles in nuanced terms, obscure the government’s view
of him and his work as dangerous?
What is the shape of the story that is being
told? Does it look like a fragmentary string of facts, a complex mosaic
or quilt, a biblical story, a stock inspirational story à la Reader’s
Digest, an intimate personal memoir, a formula that a whole series
of biographies is made to fit, a mystery, a captain-at-the-helm journey,
a collective struggle?
In what voice is the story told? Omniscient
storyteller, familiar, authoritative, exploratory, textbookish, artistic?
Is any room left for alternative interpretations or further stories? Is
there any suggestion of doubt or hesitancy with regard to the facts or
How culturally conscious is the text — that
is, to what extent does it draw upon and convey a knowledge of and appreciation
for black cultural and political life? Which details speak to this?
What does the book seem to assume about its
Does the book invite critical thinking on
the part of its readers? Appreciative thinking? Which details speak to
your sense of this?
To what extent does the narrative engage in
dichotomization (e.g., good whites vs. bad whites, Martin Luther King,
Jr., vs. Malcolm X)?
Which meta-narratives help to structure the
book (e.g., colorblind meritocracy, history as steady progress, anti-racism
as fairness)? How predictable is this narrative arc?
To what extent does the narrative acknowledge
the civil rights contributions of other figures? For example, does the
story mention Bayard Rustin, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker? Does the narrative
acknowledge tensions or conflicts with other leading African Americans?
With other people of color? With white religious and political leaders?
Does the book help readers to understand how different forms of activism
and support in the black community interact with one another? (For example,
does the book suggest that Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s agendas
were mutually exclusive or does it address how each agenda may have lent
support to the other?)
Does the book or chapter seem to follow a
formula, or does it take its shape either from the biographical subject’s
life and times, and interests, or from the author’s own interest in the
subject? How successful is the format that is used and how closely does
it resemble that of a textbook, a historical novel, an encyclopedia, a
popular history book?
How are blackness, whiteness, and brownness
understood in the text? How much specific attention is given to race and
culture? Are there implied values about race and culture (e.g., “it doesn’t
matter what color you are if you work hard”; “African Americans should
be proud of their history”; “whites can be allies to blacks”)? How
are relations between groups understood?
How are gender and sexuality treated in the
How is socio-economic class understood?
What role do the pictures play in the text?
Are they incidental, irrelevant, clichéd, powerful, surprising? Are the
photographs or paintings used mainly to break up the page and provide relief
from the printed text, to illustrate or identify various figures, to commemorate
key events? Or do they have more specific dramatic and narrative work to
do? How do readers seem to be expected to read and respond to the images?
Insofar as the biography describes King’s
childhood, does the narrative treatment highlight his complexity as a human
being or does it merely foreground the future we already know?
Are maps or charts used? How useful are they?
Were there omissions, suppressions, or choices
of inclusion that you wondered about?
If the book has an index, what do the entries
in the index suggest about the author’s assumptions, focus, and omissions?