Due from Holiday House/Neal Porter Books on August 27, A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation relays the story behind King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington. The title of the picture book, written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney, derives from a question once asked of King: if the hardest part of preaching was knowing where to begin. The civil rights icon reportedly replied in the negative, stating that the most difficult part was knowing where to end, since “it’s terrible to be circling up there without a place to land.” PW asked Pinkney about his inspiration for, and the challenge of, creating the art for this historically compelling story.
What was the intrinsic appeal of this book project to you—and how did you approach your research?
I entered into this project with great respect and admiration for Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his ministry. As the voice of the civil rights movement in its early chapters, he was this country’s trumpeter for social justice. With Barry Wittenstein’s powerful text as a springboard, I began my research by gathering all the books on Dr. King in my personal library. I then spent hour after hour on the internet viewing photos of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the most documented events of that time.
In what ways was illustrating A Place to Land a gratifying experience?
I have illustrated over 100 books, but as rewarding as they all have been, A Place to Land changed how I perceived our nation at this time of social, political, racial, and historical upheaval. I became aware of the many voices MLK had used to express his message; his tone could be angry, direct, hopeful, and positive, but he always spoke with a humbled elegance. The more I immersed myself in his mission, the more I thought about the heaviness of the responsibilities he carried on his shoulders. Through the process of creating the images for this book, I sought to visually interpret Dr. King’s vulnerability and courage, his profound concern alongside his vision of unflappable hope. It changed my own lens in viewing this country’s repressive past and its moral compass for seeking equality and justice.
What visual message do you hope young readers glean from your art?
The last spread in A Place to Land addresses how vital it is for all of us not to be misled by our own ignorance. It visually speaks to Dr. King’s legacy as spearhead and inspiration for those social justice leaders who came after him. The image is made up of a portrait of him at the March on Washington lectern along with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Congressman John Lewis, President Barack Obama, and a United States flag. The idea was to show the fight for equal rights as a continuum.
We take for granted the idea of this country as a true democracy opening its arms to all, but the demand and fight for inclusiveness is now a necessity. A placard carried in the 1963 March on Washington read, “We Demand Equal Rights Now.” And in the 21st century, we are engaged in the same struggle for justice that MLK died for.
And why is A Place to Land an important—and timely—book for today’s young Americans?
Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke first to the African-American experience and the systems that have historically perpetuated the notion of people of color as second-class citizens. He mounted argument after argument against that falsehood. But at the core of his being was his belief in the universality of humanity. He was opposed to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War—and spoke publicly against it in 1965. One can only imagine his position on immigration—especially given the intolerable and inhumane treatment of brown people on the America-Mexico border—but it is clear that Dr. King consistently used his voice to uplift the oppressed.
A Place to Land’s August 27th release date is very meaningful to me. I had an opportunity to join Holiday House for the ALA Conference in Washington, D.C., and to promote A Place to Land where the March on Washington took place. My publisher hosted a breakfast for librarians at the iconic Willard Hotel, where King wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech. I could not resist taking photos in the Willard lobby. Fun—yes! But most importantly and profoundly, it had an emotional pull on me. Jerry Pinkney was standing before the same service desk where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. checked in, and I had the chance to pause, reflect on, and reconsider that powerful moment. A Place to Land’s release date will precede the anniversary of the March on Washington by one day. All of this strikes me as a sign that for this book, the stars are in alignment.
A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-8234-4331-4)