I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.: Ordinary People Change the World

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.: Ordinary People Change the World Book Poster Image
Kid-friendly bio a strong, accessible intro to King's life.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Concise, engaging outline of key points of King's life and insight into the aspects of his childhood that led him to become a civil rights leader. Includes an explanation of Letter from the Birmingham Jail, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Children's Crusade, the March on Washington, and the Selma march. Mention that King was the youngest person (at 35) to win the Nobel Peace Prize at that time. The final two pages include a biographical and civil rights movement time line, as well as black-and-white photos of King and his family and the March on Washington.

Positive Messages

The King character says, "There is power in words." And later: "[N]o matter how hard the struggle, we must fight for what is right and work to change what is wrong. Whatever struggle you face, no matter how hard it gets, you must always move forward. ... If we rise up, if we stand together, if we remain united, nothing can stop our dream." King's mom tells young King, "You must never feel that you are less than anyone else." As a minister he says, "When someone shows you hate, show them love. When someone shows you violence, show them kindness." Actual quotes from King: "The time is always right to do right." "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Positive Role Models & Representations

King is dedicated to his cause and an inspirational leader. His parents are kind, supportive, and encouraging. Protesters risk their lives to change their world for the better.

Violence & Scariness

Police beatings and the famous water hoses and attack dogs turned against child protesters are referred to but not shown. "Enraged that we were not giving up, the chief of police told the firemen to spray the children with water hoses and attack them with dogs."

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that I Am Martin Luther King, Jr. is the eighth book in author and History Channel host Brad Meltzer's Ordinary People Change the World picture book biography series, which includes books on Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and Lucille Ball. The narrative approach and at times comics-like design of each book is the same: A pint-sized, big-headed cartoon version of the person looking like his or her adult self gives a capsule first-person account of childhood through greatest accomplishments. So here's King, sporting his trademark mustache and wearing a mini-black suit and tie, as a child in segregated Georgia, then a minister, then leader of nonviolent civil disobedience actions and marches to effect change. Police beatings and the infamous water hoses turned against child protesters are referred to but not shown. Sophisticated concepts and vocabulary ("... it was a wake-up call for the nation's conscience") make this a better bet for kids 7 and up than the 5 to 8 recommended by the publisher. In any case, parents and teachers should be ready to answer questions about this turbulent period of U.S. history.

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What's the story?

I AM MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: ORDINARY PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD traces King's life from his boyhood in Georgia, where he's stopped from playing with a white friend and can't be served ice cream at the white soda fountain or go to the white amusement park or school. But he loves books and "big words," which he gets to use first as a minister and then as a leader in the civil rights movements where his speeches motivate African-Americans to stand up for their rights and march against injustice. The book succinctly covers the most famous protests he led, and the final two pages include a biographical and civil rights movement time line, as well as black-and-white photos of King and his family and the March on Washington.

Is it any good?

The lively style and kid's-eye view of history as it happened make this brief first-person biography engaging and accessible to young readers. Kids who wonder what life in the segregated South was like or why there's a holiday in King's name will get a better understanding of both from this visually appealing book.

Illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos' cartoony style and comics-like layout, complete with speech balloons, make it easy to read, even though it deals with serious issues and complex history.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Martin Luther King. Jr. What did you learn from this book that you didn't know about him or what he did?

  • What do you think about how the illustrator pictures King as a small kid with a mustache and dressed as his grown-up self?

  • How different is life in your town and at your school compared with what life was like for young Martin in his town?

Book details

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