Review: My Brother Martin

“We three stuck together / like the pages in a brand-new book. / And being normal young children, / we were almost always up to something.” page 10

My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet.
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003.
Picture book nonfiction, 40 pages.
Lexile:  970L  .
AR Level:  5.0 (worth 0.5 points)  .

Personal remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood from his older sister Christine.

My Brother Martin

I debated a lot before buying this book.  Our local libraries didn’t have it and the cover, especially in a small thumbnail version, is just so unattractive.  However, I was hoping for something different from the standard stories, which is exactly what this book delivers.  Luckily the interior art is excellent!

The book does skew a bit toward older readers with denser text and more difficult words like chifforobe, Cyclorama, Auburn, cruelty, bigotry, nourishing.  The main focus here is on MLK’s childhood, specifically on two fronts – both the ways in which he was an ordinary, sometimes mischievous little boy, and the events that shaped his personality.

My Brother Martin p28-29 resized
Martin Luther King’s congregation includes his son MLK, Jr. on pages 28 and 29 of My Brother Martin.

His adult life is skimmed over in two brief pages, and that’s fine, because there are already so many books that tell that story.  King Farris focuses instead on her unique experiences growing up with MLK (called M.L.) and their little brother Alfred Daniel (A. D.).

The interior art was actually mostly done from live models specifically chosen by King Farris to best represent the different characters.  The author’s and illustrator’s notes are well worth a read for parents, teachers, and older children.  The back of the book also includes a great poem by Mildred D. Johnson, ‘You Can Be Like Martin’.

My Brother Martin p35 resized
Page 35 of My Brother Martin is in greyscale tones.

The word Negroes is used on page twenty-three when M.L. and A.D.’s former playmates are not allowed to play with them.  Otherwise race is described using the terms white and black.  I greatly appreciated the careful way this story is introduced.  King Farris describes the neighborhood, the way that the children would all play together, and then finally brings up the two white children who were included in all the games.  She says:

The thought of not playing with those kids
because they were different,
because they were white and we were black,
never entered our minds.  (page 21)

I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen racial encounters brought up in this way in a children’s book before.  King Farris puts the emphasis first on the inclusion that the black community gave their white neighbors, before eventually talking about the way whites tried to separate the races.  In fact, in this book, it is clear that the white boys are missing out as they sit forlornly on the porch, unable to come play because their parents have laid down the law of racism.

My Brother Martin p6-7 resized
Pages six and seven of My Brother Martin.

The way King Farris tells this story in particular is exceptional.  The story of the two white boys, their eventual rejection of MLK, and his mother’s reaction forms the bulk of the book, but there are a few other stories too.  King Farris tells about her, and later her brother’s, birth in the same room, and the loving three generation household they grew up in.  She explains why they never rode streetcars and other ways that her father first avoided, and later taught them to handle prejudice.  Although in modern America’s shoot first culture, I remind my children their dignity is important but their life is more valuable.

She includes a story about how they would use their grandmother’s fur to scare passerby on the sidewalk.  Vegan or vegetarian families might struggle with how to handle this scene.  Another prank M.L and A.D. played was to loosen the legs of the piano bench so when their teacher sat down he fell off and their lesson was delayed.

My Brother Martin p10-11 resized
Grandmother’s fur piece is used to frighten passerby on page ten and eleven of My Brother Martin.

These stories go a long way to humanize MLK and bring him down from the pedestal he is often enshrined on in elementary education.  That, combined with the cover and vocabulary, probably also explains why this book is not especially popular.  It’s easier to teach hero worship than to analyse a complicated figure or educate students about the many people who contributed to the civil rights movement.

Highly recommended for students from about 2nd to 5th grade.  With patience it could be read to younger children, although I’d probably break it into a few parts.  The teacher or parent will want to pre-read to be aware of the more difficult vocabulary rather than for content.  Due to the unique stories and advanced language, I think this could also be a supplement for middle and maybe high school students studying MLK.

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.

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