Review: Happy Birthday, MLK

This picture book has been a staple of classroom celebrations for more than a decade.

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo, illustrated by J. Brian Pinkney.
Scholastic, New York, 1993.
Picture book nonfiction, 28 pages.
Lexile: 800L
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 0.5 points)

This simple text describes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and death to help children understand why we celebrate on the third Monday of January.  It is titled Happy Birthday because originally MLK day was on January 15th to commemorate his birthday, but it became a move-able celebration when it became a federal holiday.

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo, illustrated by J. Brian Pinkney

Here we have an all-star team who really know their audience and work splendidly together.  Marzollo is best known these days for her I Spy books, and prolific illustrator (and sometime author) Brian Pinkney has many books about African-American history and culture.

Everyone has their authors or illustrators that they love.  Pretty much if a Pinkney worked on it (Brian, Andrea Davis, or Jerry), I feel confident buying a copy sight unseen.  But as it happens, I am already familiar with this book because it’s one of my favorite read-alouds for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

I would say that Brian Pinkney has a very distinctive style, except as I become more familiar with his work, I’ve realized that he is always pushing himself to try new styles.  This book was illustrated early on in his career and is done in the scratchboard style he is famous for.  I did feel like the style was at times just a little too dark but the technique does lend a vibrancy and energy to the often static pictures.  If only I had a Big Book version of this so that all of the kids could see the book well; they often get drawn in to the pictures.

This book has a curious forward that warns parents and teachers about the words “shot and killed” used to describe MLK’s death and gives an example of alternate language that can be used.  I found this very interesting particularly in contrast to the photo language in Ruby Bridges Goes to School, however this author is white and so has the privilege of shielding children from knowledge of racism.  I wonder if it is that or the time period (1993 vs. 2009) that had a greater effect.  Personally I always read it as written unless I know one of my students has a trigger around shootings.

Jean Marzollo’s forward to Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King.


The text to picture ratio is pretty good.  Only one two-page spread has more than a paragraph, and even then it only six sentences long.  The text is large enough to read and always visible on the light parts of the illustration.

I also like that this book, while it mentions Rosa Parks in passing, doesn’t focus too much on her story.  A lot of MLK biographies for children insert a mini-biography of Rosa Parks when they get to his participation in the Montgomery bus boycotts.  It’s great that kids are learning who Rosa Parks is, except… they’re really not.  Older kids reading independently can handle the digression, but for my youngest students, they end up confused.  I think this is partly why some kids come out of January thinking that Rosa Parks is Martin Luther King’s wife.

The book, like most picture books about the civil rights movement, tends to oversimplify and place discrimination and struggles for civil rights in the past.  However, with only that to mar an otherwise well-done book, this remains one of the best picture books for MLK day.

This book is definitely recommended for your home, school, or classroom and makes a good read-aloud for kindergarten or higher.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

4 thoughts on “Review: Happy Birthday, MLK”

  1. I like to see really good books stand the test of time. I think 22 years ago we were more careful with upsetting language for kids. We live in a different world now and kids see so much more than we did as children. Love Brian Pinkney’s work. It is an excellent classroom book. Can imagine the discussions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s shocking some of the language and knowledge my students come into the classroom with, as well as the permissiveness of some parents (kindergarten and first graders “reading” Dork Diaries and Goosebumps). Some days I feel like a prude but I honestly think being exposed to certain things before they’re ready can harm children. Brian Pinkney is one of my favorite illustrators, all his work is so high-quality. The kids love this book and pore over each page.

      Liked by 1 person

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