Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport

  • Title: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King
  • Author: Doreen Rappaport
  • Illustrator: Bryan Collier
  • Publisher: Hyperion Books
  • Year Published: 2001
  • ISBN: 1423106350
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 5+
  • Genre: biography
  • Award(s): Coretta Scott King Honor Book; Caldecott Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Doreen Rappaport has a very robust and comprehensive website. The homepage includes recent important information, such as links to her most recent published titles and recent blog articles. Her about section not only includes information about herself, but also information about illustrators she has worked with. In her section about her books, she has organized titles into sections based on topic, including sections for women’s history, Holocaust titles, and African American history as well as recent releases. Her most recent title, Beyond Courage, has it’s own tab on her website and includes links to reviews and articles about the book as well as resources for people who may want to learn more about this subject. Her website also has a section for teachers, with resources and ideas for using her titles in a classroom setting, as well as information about upcoming events she will be speaking at. Rappaport includes this quote from herself as her reason for doing the work she does: “I want to write stories that empower kids to know that other people empowered themselves. If I have a mission, that’s my mission.”

Reviews: This title received positive reviews, including a starred review from Booklist. Many of the reviews highlight that Rappaport uses King’s own words to paint a picture of his ideals and his character, and that this title is a great introductory biography of an iconic Civil Rights activist. School Library Journal comments on the fact that the author and illustrator preface the work by explaining why and how Dr. King inspired them, and the book concludes on a hopeful note by reminding readers that King’s words are immortal. Most of the reviews also commend the cut-paper technique used in the illustrations.

Readers annotation: Words can be powerful. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his big words to change a nation.

Summary: This biography starts with young Martin and his mother looking at a sign saying “Whites Only”. When Martin gets upset, his mother tells him that he is as good as anybody. As he grew up, Martin decided he would use his words to enact change. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Martin Luther King Jr. joined the Montgomery bus boycott. When others advocated violence, he advocated peace. Many white Americans were afraid of him, and his home and family were threatened as a result of his actions, but he refused to stop. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and delivered the now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He was shot and killed in Memphis because of his work, but his words and spirit still live on.

Evaluation: This book is beautiful, not only because of its large and eye-catching cut-paper illustrations, but also because of its tender portrayal of Dr. King and his life’s work and legacy. The narrative text is enhanced by the use of Dr. King’s own “big words”. These quotes show his dedication, courage, wisdom, and love for all of humanity, and they help bring this biography to life. The ending is both hopeful and inspirational, and it is a perfect introduction for children to this iconic Civil Rights activist. The author and illustrator notes are a lovely addition, as they explain why the creators chose this subject matter as well as give insight into some of the artistic decisions, such as the symbolism of the stained glass windows that can be found throughout the book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Both the narrative and the artwork are wonderful, and this book will appeal both to those who are familiar with King’s work and those who haven’t yet heard of him. Although the book does deal with the hatred and violence King faced as well as his assassination, the book remains hopeful and uplifting.
  • Popularity: 4/5  The only factor that may detract from readers being excited about reading this book is the fact that it is non-fiction, which might deter some readers from selecting this title on their own. Those who do read it will be delighted with the story of such a brave, intelligent, and kind man and will be inspired by his life and actions.
  • Appeal factors: African American and Civil Rights history, biographies of influential people, cut-paper illustrations.


  1. For readers who want to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream illustrated by Kadir Nelson is a beautifully illustrated book that includes the original text of King’s speech. This would be a good fit for those who want to delve deeper into King’s civil rights activism and who enjoyed the MLK quotes in Martin’s Big Words.
  2. Rosa by Nikki Giovanni would be a perfect suggestion for readers who want to learn more about the Civil Rights movement. This is a biography of Rosa Parks and includes her courageous decision to refuse to give up her seat and the resulting bus boycott. Fans of Brian Collier’s cut-paper illustrations will enjoy this same artist’s treatment of the story of Rosa Parks.

Book talk ideas: Because one of the central themes of this book is the importance of words, it could be a good idea to start by asking the readers why they think words are important. Then, introduce Dr. King’s idea about “big words” and ask them to shout out some “big words” (like love, peace, hope, etc.). After this is done, explain how Dr. King used his words to change the United States as we know it, and to help fight for equal rights for everybody.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What is the power of “big words”? What are ways you can use “big words” to make a difference in the world?
  2. Why do you think Dr. King was killed? Why did his words and actions scare some people?
  3. Which Dr. King quote is your favorite? Why?

Reason for reading: This book would have been hard to overlook, considering the number of awards it won. It caught my attention at the beginning of the semester. I didn’t want to only read Caldecott titles; I have great respect for the award and love many of the books I’ve read from Caldecott lists, but I felt it was important to diversify my portfolio and read books that have won other awards as well. This title was a Coretta Scott King honor book as well as a Caldecott honor, so it showed up multiple times in my research.

Additional relevant information: Rappaport’s website features a section called Kids Connect, which shows how children in classrooms across the country have used her books as the basis for different class projects. One class created an “inspiring words” bulletin board with quotes from Rappaport’s biography subjects; another class made book trailers for some of her titles. A third class used Rappaport’s books as the basis for a unit about biographies, and each child wrote and illustrated an autobiography.


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