Monday, August 9, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: My Uncle Martin's Big Heart, by Angela Farris Watkins and Eric Velasquez (Abrams, 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8.

There are many books for young people available about Martin Luther King, Jr., but this new picture book adds a different and welcome dimension to the usual biographies of the famous civil rights leader.  

Written by Martin Luther King's niece, Angela Farris Watkins, who was almost 4 years old when King was assassinated, the book offers a highly personal reminiscence of the man, not the icon.  

The author's voice used throughout the book is Angela herself as a young girl (although a bit older than she actually was at the time), and although she is aware of her uncle as a great leader and an American hero, she concentrates on the man she knew as Uncle M.L., the family's special nickname for him.  We see a man who loved to laugh and make others laugh, who loved to spend time with his family, and who although he worked very long hours, managed to find time not only for his own immediate family, but for his nieces and nephews as well!  We even see Uncle M.L. spread out sleeping on Angela's family sofa with his shoes on, obviously a big no-no in the house, but OK for uncle M.L., since he was so tired from his hard work.

Angela also talks about Uncle M.L. the preacher and his great voice, and there's a delightful depiction of one of her favorite memories of her uncle, where she would run up to him after he finished on the pulpit for a great big hug, dressed in her "very best church dress."  

In the end, the author emphasizes that Uncle M. L.'s big heart full of love was what made him so special--his love not only for his family, but for America.  In an author's note, she writes:  
I wrote this book so that children could get to know Martin Luther King Jr. the way I knew him when I was a child, through his love...I want them to see how much love he really had--enough to share with his family and his friends, enough to encourage his church, enough to strengthen his community, and enough to change the world.
With this lovely new book, Angela Farris Watkins has succeeded admirably in her goal.  This will make an excellent addition to both school and public libraries, and would be a terrific read-aloud for elementary school classrooms when learning about Dr. King.

The beautifully realized painted illustrations by Eric Velasquez, who has illustrated many other historical picture books, capture the warm relationship King had with his family, as well as carefully detailing the period setting through use of archival photographs.  

This would be an excellent book to combine with My Brother Martin:  A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Simon & Schuster, 2003), written by Christine King Farris (the author's mother).  

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