If you want something about Dr. King, pick up KING for Kids and let him speak for himself. It's an audio CD that pieces together a couple of hours worth of speeches and sermons by Dr. King, meant to give kids and families a clear, concise introduction to the man's way with language and his core beliefs (not just his most famous quotes). For a contemplative car trip or a rainy afternoon, this sounds like a dream for a family of social justice-minded folks.
For something about the civil rights movement, try Elizabeth Partridge's Marching For Freedom: Walk Together Children, and Don't You Grow Weary. If you're looking for a book to breathe fresh air into the topic, this is a spectacular choice. Focusing mostly on the first half of 1965 in Selma, this tells in clear language, much of it quotations from interviews, the individual stories of (mostly pretty young) people who were involved in the marches and protests at the time. The book grabbed me from sentence one: "The first time Joanne Blackmon was arrested, she was just ten years old." And the facing set of four photographs are captioned: "Samuel Newall stands alone in front of the Dallas County Courthouse with his protest sign, July 8, 1964. Deputies arrested him." Two pictures show him standing, warily but proudly, with his sign. One picture shows a wall of khaki-wearing deputies ambling up the sidewalk as he watches them. The last one shows them surrounding him and taking his sign. He looks about ten years old. The book works so well both because of these great photographs, and because of its tight focus on a few individuals, following them through events as they unfold so you get an incredibly up-close view.
Another fresh civil rights nonfiction title you can grab is something I've recommended here before: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (now out in paperback). Did you know Claudette sat down in the front of a bus almost a year before Rosa did? She just didn't get as much political support, seemingly because her story was a little too complex to make for a poster child. If you want to read about an inspiring young activist who you've probably never heard of before, here you go. (Whet your appetite for her story with this New York Times piece on the book and Ms. Colvin.)
This is a nonfiction book I love but never put on display, because the cover features a photograph of two men who have been lynched, and it's just not quite face-out appropriate in the kids section. It would be pretty upsetting to come upon next to the stickers and coloring books. But that doesn't mean it's not deserving of a lot attention. The title is Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America, and this is the kind of kids' nonfiction that I love for taking a weirdly specific-yet-general concept or topic and then laying out a lot of great information in a relatively short page count. This mostly covers specific historical instances of intolerance, ranging from Mary Dyer, who was hung for being a Quaker in Boston in 1660, to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, to the 1984 murder of Charlie Howard, a 23-year-old gay man in Bangor, Maine. With black and white photographs throughout, it's chilling in just the way a study of American intolerance should be.
And to move forward with hope, and put King's words into practice, there are two books from one of my favorite children's publishers, Free Spirit press: The Kids Guide to Social Action: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose and Turn Creative Thinking Into Positive Action and the similar-sounding but different The Kids Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Kids Who Want to Make a Difference (sorry, y'all, I love a good long subtitle). Perfect for a family, classroom, girl scout troop, or whatever, these are the kinds of how-to books that I find a lot more interesting than how to build a birdhouse or make your own paper clock (no offense, how-to books! I just like activism more than crafts. It's not your fault, really). Headings contained in The Kid's Guide to Social Action: "How a Bill Becomes a Law," "Five Ways to Fundraise," "How to Write a News Release," "Parading, Picketing and Protesting: When All Else Fails." Inside The Kid's Guide to Service Projects: "Help Get Out the Vote," "Adopt a Grandfriend," "Help People Who Are Out of Work," "Grow a School Garden," Try Tutoring."
Now get to work, young ones. You're the future, remember?
-Anna, Kids Books