Martin Luther King, Jr., Children’s Biography Worksheet

Audrey Thompson

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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 interpretations?
  4. 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?
  5. What does the book seem to assume about its audience?
  6. Does the book invite critical thinking on the part of its readers? Appreciative thinking? Which details speak to your sense of this?
  7. To what extent does the narrative engage in dichotomization (e.g., good whites vs. bad whites, Martin Luther King, Jr., vs. Malcolm X)?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?)
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. How are gender and sexuality treated in the text?
  13. How is socio-economic class understood?
  14. 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?
  15. 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?
  16. Are maps or charts used? How useful are they?
  17. Were there omissions, suppressions, or choices of inclusion that you wondered about?
  18. If the book has an index, what do the entries in the index suggest about the author’s assumptions, focus, and omissions?

Audrey Thompson/2004

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