Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most celebrated figures in American history. He is lauded across the world as one of the most influential and charismatic spiritual, civil rights, and racial equality leaders ever to have lived. The body of his life's work includes countless speeches, both planned and impromptu, many of which have left indelible marks on the pages of history. 

We celebrate MLK Day not as a day off, but as a day "on," meaning that Dr. King would have wanted us to move to action on this day. Because he was a man of action, Dr. King knew that it was "people power" that got the job done. This makes the day we celebrate his life a great day to teach young learners all about how they, too, can move to positive action within their own lives, communities, and virtual classrooms. Although your class won’t be in session on MLK Day, there are ways to get your students involved this week and next as they celebrate the iconic civil rights leader. 

Let's review some books that can help children learn to become stewards of what John Lewis called "good trouble." We’ll also discuss some of the ways you can use these books in your remote teaching environment as tools to teach your students all about this important day of service and how to best make use of it.

Books that Celebrate MLK Day

Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dream and You

Even though it took more than 18 years from his assassination to establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday, Dr. King's message of kindness, acceptance, tolerance, and racial equality are needed now more than ever. 

That's exactly why we love Carole Boston Weatherford and James E. Ransome's book, Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dream and You. This beautifully illustrated book depicts the critical events of Dr. King's life. It shows young children of today involved in the kinds of deeds Dr. King inspired in those who had the good fortune of meeting and knowing him. The book is an excellent read for those who are new to Dr. King's story and a perfect way to introduce the idea of civic engagement to young learners.

I Have a Dream

As a forward-looking review of Dr. King's most well-known and highly revered speech, "I Have a Dream," this book of the same name gives readers the chance to delve into the famous speech for themselves. But beyond this, I Have a Dream features gorgeous paintings by Kadir Nelson, giving even the smallest children the chance to see what Dr. King and some of his most beloved places to visit and preach looked like. 

Though it is undoubtedly true that much of this epic speech will be more than very young children can grasp, children of all ages can learn at least parts of it early on. This book makes that possible in a beautiful way, with enchanting paintings that give credence to Dr. King's words, making it an excellent companion for learners as they grow. I Have a Dream allows students the opportunity to best familiarize themselves with this critically important speech and a period in Dr. King's life.

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by award-winning author Doreen Rappaport, Martin’s Big Words tells the story of Dr. King's heroic, lifelong battle against the evils of racism. But as Rappaport tells the story of Dr. King's life and accomplishments, she also explains that what we say—and how we say it—matters. 

To be sure, racism and the evils it can engender are tough topics to tackle in the classroom, but this book does it tactfully, directly, and with poise. Rappaport borrows some of Dr. King's own words to tell the story of his life but fills in pieces of the timeline in her own brilliant yet straightforward way. Accompanied by the exquisite watercolor illustrations of Bryan Collier, this book is a must-have for educators detailing Dr. King's story to those who are new to it.

I Am #4: Martin Luther King, Jr.

This engaging book for emerging readers has an interesting bent: its introduction is written in the present tense! Making it seem as though Dr. King himself is speaking directly to the reader is a fascinating way to engage young learners who are new to his life story. The book then details the various stages of Dr. King’s life and inspirational journey in the third person. 

As one of the I Am series, this book comes complete with a chronological timeline of the events that shaped Dr. King’s life and career. It also includes maps depicting the locations where significant happenings occurred and interesting sidebars that highlight important events, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Engaging Activities Using Books That Celebrate MLK and His Special Day

Teachers know that books like these are terrific for reading aloud to the class or having children read around in the classroom or during circle time on the floor. But what else can you do to celebrate MLK Day with good reads like these?

Teach accurately and cover more than just MLK Jr.

You can’t teach your students about the entire civil rights movement by reading a single short book about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you can use these books to open classroom discussions about him and why what he did matters. More importantly, you can pull facts directly from Dr. King's speeches and from passages about important events in his life. 

Use the story of Dr. King’s life to introduce Black History Month. As a well-known figure, Dr. King is beloved and historically famous. As a leader, who else might he have wanted us to know about who was equally important, powerful, and influential in the cause against racism and for equal rights? As a teacher in his own right, Dr. King taught about much more than what divides us racially. If alive today, he may still be preaching about the power of self-love, the importance of economic justice, and the meaning of brotherhood and connectedness. There’s nothing that says you can’t do the same!

Let the artwork stir your students’ creative spark 

Each of these books celebrates MLK and his message of love and resilience with beautiful and even award-winning illustrations. Ask your students to pick the one that inspires them the most. Then, have students draw or paint Dr. King, other leaders, or different events they have learned about during Black History Month from the comfort of their homes. 

This exercise allows kids to express themselves, show what they have learned, and show each other which parts of the books moved them the most. After their drawings and paintings are complete, give every student the chance to discuss why they drew or painted what they did, and discuss which drawing or painting by another student was their favorite and why.

Write a short essay about prejudice and how to stop it 

Once you have had the chance to read the books and engage in a visual exercise, have your students dig a little deeper. Pose the question, "What is prejudice, and what can we do to stop it?" Ask them to draw from the teachings of Dr. King and other trailblazers in civil rights. Ask them to imagine living in the same eras as these important changemakers. 

Then, based on what is appropriate for their age, ask your students to write about what prejudice means to them. Invite them to discuss the tools they have within themselves, within their peer group, and within their communities that could help put an end to the prejudices we face today. This is a great exercise for breakout groups in the virtual learning environment.

One of the key takeaways from the teachings of Dr. King is that words matter. By introducing your students to his life story, his speeches, and even the manner of his death, you hold several powerful lessons in your hands. 

Use these books and ideas to teach your students about their responsibility to make the world a better and kinder place.