Up to the challenge: Children's book on MLK was novelist's 'most difficult'

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

“I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.” was the most difficult book in his best-selling “Ordinary People Change the World” series for Brad Meltzer to write.

“Each book, I try to write in the hero’s voice – toned down for kids, obviously – but still in their voice. But when I started this one, I just couldn’t reproduce Dr. King’s voice. It was too refined, too… beautiful, if that makes sense. It’s truly one of a kind. So then I went back and dissected King’s own writings and speeches, trying to figure out exactly ‘how’ he wrote and spoke. And then I was even more intimidated. It took draft after draft before I felt like I had even started officially writing,” explained Meltzer, 45, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School in New York City.

“I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Penguin Random House $12.99) – which debuted January 5 – is the eighth book in this series written by Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. Meltzer got the idea for this series more than three years ago, telling his three children that sports figures and reality show stars are not heroes; they’re famous people, but they’re not heroes.

So Meltzer wrote this series to show them some of the greatest people throughout history who changed the world for the better are heroes. Thus far, the historical figures he’s spotlighted are Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, Lucille Ball, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks. 

“I always knew Lincoln and Earhart would be first, since my kids loved those heroes,” said Meltzer. “But when you start thinking heroes, (King) is always at the forefront.”

“I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.” debuted two weeks before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 18, a national holiday celebrated on every third Monday in January, which is either on or around Jan. 15, the birthday of the celebrated civil rights leader. This year marks the 30th anniversary of when the holiday was first celebrated as a national holiday. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

“I wish I was that brilliant of a planner. I’ll take that one as fate. History works in the wildest ways,” explained Meltzer. “I’ve been waiting to write this book since the moment the series started. This isn’t just about history. Look at any news report. We need the lessons of (King) right now. Today. His life is proof that if we stand together and remain united, nothing can stop us.”

Born in Atlanta in 1929, King learned first-hand at a very young age the unfair ways African-Americans were treated. When he grew up, he vowed to do something about it – only peacefully.

He was an American Baptist minister and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement who’s renowned for his role in the advancement of civil rights by using nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

King was one of the key figures who organized 1963’s March on Washington, which was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in the history of the United States. It was on Aug. 28, 1963 when King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In this speech – which cemented his status as one of history’s greatest orators – King called for an end to racism. This was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

As a result, this speech and the March on Washington has been credited to helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also preceded the three Selma to Montgomery marches – which were part of the Voting Rights Movement in Alabama – which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Like all of us, he’s human. If I’ve learned one thing doing these books, it’s that no one is perfect.  If you’re looking for perfection, you’re not looking at a human being. But there aren’t many people who significantly impacted so many key moments in modern history. It was humbling to see the full scope of that impact,” said Meltzer.

In 1963, King was named TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year. In 1964, he was the youngest person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at age 39 in Memphis, Tenn. by James Earl Ray. Posthumously, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was dedicated.

“I believe Dr. King knew what the future should be. He was a preacher with the whole world as his congregation. And the reason he couldn’t be ignored wasn’t just because he was the most well-spoken – which he was – it was because he studied and analyzed the issues down to their cores,” explained Meltzer. “He didn’t just say ‘peace is the answer’ because that sounded great or because it made people feel good; he said it because he’d studied the philosophical implications of peace and love, and tested them to make sure those solutions were logically sound to address the problems at hand. It’s why his teachings are as relevant today as they’ve ever been.”

Meltzer’s next books in this series include “I Am George Washington” and “I Am Jane Goodall,” both of which will debut in September. Goodall is the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and has been studying them for nearly six decades.

“I wanted to do a female scientist for my daughter, so Jane Goodall was right at the top of my list. As for George Washington, c’mon, it’s George Washington,” he said. “I started these books to give my kids real heroes. But there’s nothing like getting letter after letter of people saying, ‘Brad, thanks to your books, this Halloween my daughter went out as Amelia Earhart instead of a princess.’ In my wildest dreams, I never anticipated that.”

His next political thriller, “The House of Secrets,” is slated to be released in June. Meltzer wouldn’t reveal any details, however.

Meltzer himself made the news three months ago. He helped his high school history teacher Ellen Sherman – to whom he dedicated his book “History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time” – find a kidney donor. Sherman was dying of kidney failure. She asked Meltzer to help her find a donor, given his extraordinary number of followers on social media. The response was overwhelming.

As this was happening, Meltzer was in the final stages of penning “I Am Helen Keller.” At the end of the book, he asked the readers to go thank the teacher in their lives who inspired them and helped them when they needed it the most.

Still, no donor was found until late last year when Amy Waggoner, who saw Meltzer’s Facebook post about his former teacher, was a match for Sherman. Today, both Sherman and Waggoner are doing well, according to Meltzer. Their story made national news and was featured in People magazine and on “CBS This Morning.”

“With so much bad news in the world, it hit at a moment when people just needed a taste of something good. The real hero is Amy Waggoner, the incredible donor who gave her kidney to my history teacher,” said Meltzer. “I couldn’t have written a better ending to a story. I still can’t believe it happened, but I always thought: ‘This is gonna work.’ I just had faith in my readers. They never ever let me down.”

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