Recently, there was criticism of the “Who Was…” book on Harriet Tubman, based on its depiction of a young enslaved Harriet as being happy despite her situation. At the time, it was pointed out that the author of the book is White.
I researched the “Who Was…” series in general and found that most of the writers are White. This is a problem. (One exception: Who Were the Tuskagee Airmen? by Sherri L. Smith.)
That’s not to say that White people can’t write books about Black people. But, especially when the topic is about the Black experience, and when the figures highlighted are key parts of major shifts in US society, the background of the authors and editors is crucial.
One of the major criticisms of the 2017 movie “Detroit” is that director Kathryn Bigelow is White (as is screenwriter Mark Boal). “Detroit” is about an event that occurred during the 1967 Detroit uprising. This is not a story that should have been told from a predominantly White gaze, especially when they’re not even from Detroit.
Word and image selection can have a significant impact on perspective. Indeed, in recent years in Detroit, there has been a discussion about whether to call the events of 1967 a “riot” (as has long been the case), an “uprising” (as the Detroit Historical Society does), or a “rebellion”.
But at least “Detroit” is an R-rated story intended for adults. A children’s book might well be the very first time a child is exposed to a story. To have those stories told by White authors, even well-intentioned and passionate ones, provides a skewed, one-sided view.
Iwas reminded of this recently when I noticed ads for Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.? It was also written by an apparently White author.
Then I noticed that the author of the I Can Read! book is likewise (apparently) White.
In both of these cases, I assume that the publisher sought out the author, not the other way around. The publisher could have sought out anyone, and this is who they chose.
At the same time, the White authors decided to accept an assignment rather than suggest the publisher find a Black author.
You may be thinking, “Now, wait, most freelance authors are starving, who would turn down an opportunity?” However, carefully writing a racially sensitive book about a Black historical figure is the act of an ally; refusing to write a book, giving up that opportunity in favor of a Black voice, is the act of an accomplice.
Now wondering if there were any children’s books about King written by a Black author, I decided to spend some time going through Amazon’s selection. I searched on “martin luther king jr books kids” and looked at the first three pages of results. My criterion: The book should prominently focus on King’s life and contributions.
For each book, I found out what I could about the author. Sometimes it was just a photograph, sometimes there was some biographical information. I don’t recall any entry that specifically said the author was White, but when Whiteness is the cultural default, that’s not surprising.
I also only looked into the author. Since these are children’s books, most also have illustrators, some of whom could well be Black.
That said, here’s what I found: Four books by Black authors. Eighteen books by people who at least present as White, and one more where I couldn’t find any information.
First, here are the four books by Black authors, including links to Amazon to make browsing easier.
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Martin Luther King III (Amistad, 2018 edition)
The Story of Martin Luther King Jr., by Jonny Ray Moore (WorthyKids, 2015 edition)
A Lesson for Martin Luther King Jr. (Ready-to-read COFA), by Denise Lewis Patrick (Simon Spotlight, 2003 edition)
Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You, by Carole Boston Weatherford (Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2018)
If you have small children, teach elementary school, or have influence over an elementary school library, consider these books.
Regarding the publishers: “HarperCollins’s Amistad Press is the oldest publisher devoted to multicultural voices.” WorthyKids is a division of Hachette Book Group. Simon Spotlight is a division of Simon & Schuster. Bloomsbury USA Children’s is a division of The Bloomsbury Group.
Meanwhile, here is the list of books by White and White-presenting authors. When the book is apparently part of a series, I’ve indicated that. If I am incorrect about any of these authors, please let me know and I’ll correct it.
A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr., David A. Adler, Picture Book Biography series
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Peaceful Leader, Sarah Albee, I Can Read! series
My Little Golden Book About Martin Luther King Jr., Bonnie Bader
Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.?, Bonnie Bader, Who Was series
Texting with Martin Luther King Jr, Bobby Basil
Martin Luther King, Jr., Marion Dane Bauer, My First Biography series
Martin Luther King Jr.: Voice for Equality!, James Buckley Jr., Show Me History series
Free at Last: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Bull, DK Readers series
The Cart That Carried Martin, Eve Bunting
Good Night Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Gamble, Good Night Our World series
Martin Luther King Jr., Dona Herweck, Teacher Created Materials — TIME for Kids
Martin Luther King, Jr., Kitson Jazynka, National Geographic Kids
I am Martin Luther King, Jr., Brad Lemtzer, Ordinary People Change the World series
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Photographic Story of a Life, Amy Pastan, DK Biography series
Martin’s Big Words, Doreen Rappaport, Big Words series
Martin Luther King, Jr., Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Little People, Big Dreams series [The author is from Spain and appears White in her bio shot.]
When Martin Luther King Jr. Wore Roller Skates, Mark Andrew Weakland, Leaders Doing Handstands series
A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, Barry Wittenstein
And I could not find a photo of the author for:
Martin Luther King, Jr., Emma E. Haldy, My Itty Bitty Bio series