There is a way to answer the question posed in Shani Mahiri King’s forthcoming picture book, Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?, with a simple yes or no. That is just what King and illustrator Bobby C. Martin Jr. are out to defy with a book whose pages celebrate the stories of Black Americans who have shaped—and are shaping—the history, texture, art, and science of all American life.
Slated for publication by Tilbury House on January 19, the book is as much a personal endeavor as a professional one for King. He has two children, ages eight and six, and wanted a story for them, especially after a conversation with a colleague who urged him to find stories that would tell them about their history. “Kids recognize race from a very, very young age,” the colleague had said, “so start reading to them with books that reflect who they are very early.”
An accomplished lawyer, educator, and nonprofit leader, King looked at the Black Lives Matter movement and said to himself, “Now’s the time to write a book that is reflective of who [kids] are in their history.”
Soon, he was creating a list that honors widely known figures involved in civil rights while widening his lens to introduce many people who are often overlooked. As the list grew, he polled friends and colleagues about who to include, coming up with themes and quotes with which to divide the list into page spreads.
Among them are Kendrick Lamar and Louis Armstrong, Angela Davis and August Wilson. Along with leaders like Shirley Chisholm there are dancers Gregory Hines and Alvin Ailey. Along with athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos are artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jerry Pinkney.
“The goal was to make the point that there are accomplished African Americans from just about every field,” King said. “They come from rich households, they come from poor households. They come from two-parent households, they come from single-parent households. They come from households in which their parents were both documented and undocumented, and gay and straight. So I wanted to be as broad and deep as possible.”
Turning Typography into Art
To transform the words into art, King and Tilbury House co-publisher Jonathan Eaton turned to Bobby Martin. Martin had never illustrated a picture book before, but his graphic design work has in many ways been the visual texture of Black Lives Matter, appearing on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd.
Martin said he was immediately attracted to King’s manuscript. “There was an accessibility in the way that it was written, because it took these really important people and it kind of shouted them out in a way that felt very familiar,” Martin said.
Instead of illustrating with images, Martin turned to what he calls “typographic illustration,” using letters and vivid color contrast to create a visual score for the words that sometimes revolves around an image, but just as often does not.
“The reference points were things that we were surrounded by in the news,” Martin said. “You would see people marching through the streets, and they were raising these placards. And they were raising cardboard that they’d scrawled Black Lives Matter on, or their names and messages. There’s an urgency to that. What I wanted to do is figure out how we could capture that urgency, that clarity, that lack of ambiguity, and bring that into this children’s book in a really expressive way.”
One image that was included was John Lewis, the civil rights icon and congressman, who died last summer, while Martin was beginning to work on the illustrations. “I definitely wanted to place particular focus and emphasis on him,” Martin said. “Being able to zoom in on his profile, you immediately know who he is, while there’s not a lot of detail there, and that was fun to be able to focus on.
Along with words that fill the pages, there are more spare and emphatic statements, including a spread that includes Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s maxim, “My mother did not raise me to ask for permission to lead,” alongside a facing page with only her name, surrounded by a sea of bright red color.
“It becomes this punctuation mark,” Martin said. “And it places focus in a really powerful way. I felt like we needed that as we’re going through these pages. What was really nice about that spread in particular is being able to focus on someone who’s already done such incredible work, but is really at the beginning of what can be and will be a long and powerful career.”
The challenge for King was in limiting his list. Ultimately he decided to create a section at the back of the book for children interested in further reading, which contains 100 short biographical sketches. King said he has pondered what it might look like to turn the words of the people figured in the back section of the book into standalone books in their own words.
He would have a ready partner in Martin, who found working on his first book project deeply satisfying. “This book was a labor of love, and I really enjoyed doing it,” Martin said. “I was surprised I was able to pull it off because I think I was scared a little bit. I would totally do it again.”
For now, both author and illustrator are simply satisfied at having something they can share with their own children. Martin will be able to read the book with his one-year old son shortly, and King can return to his son and daughter—who first read the manuscript before it was illustrated—and share a finished story that offers a deep answer to the question Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?
Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter? by Shani Mahiri King, illus. by Bobby C. Martin Jr. Tilbury House, $17.95 Jan. 19 ISBN 978-0-88448-889-7