My Brother Martin


Review of My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Christine King Farris.  Illus. Chris Soentpiet.

In her “Afterword” to My Brother Martin, author, Christine King Farris tells the reader she wanted to “share some true, funny, intriguing” stories about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood.  The book gives a brief description of their family history and their happy and somewhat sheltered lifestyle followed by a couple of mischievous tricks the children play. The turning point of the story comes when their playmates, children of the white storeowners on the block, are no longer allowed to play with them because they are “Negroes.” The saddened children ask their mother why this has happened, and she explains racial prejudice to them.  Martin replies, “Mother Dear, one day I’m going to turn this world upside down.”  The following years are then summarized with scenes in church and with Dr. King Sr.’s beliefs and struggles.  Then there are two pages of text on Dr. King, Jr.’s activism ending with a reference to the famous “I have a dream” speech.

On the first page of the text, opposite a photo of herself, Farris encourages readers/listeners to gather round to hear her stories of her brother.  She explains she is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s older sister and that she knew her famous sibling long before he was famous.  Then follow the accounts of their happy childhood accompanied by Chris Soentpiet’s lush, realistic paintings.  The loving extended family, the childhood activities, and a couple of childhood pranks are articulated.  Farris tells how they used their grandmother’s fox fur piece to shock passing pedestrians and how, one day, Martin (M.L.) and his younger brother A.D. loosened the legs of the piano bench so they wouldn’t have to take their lesson that day from their grumpy piano teacher, Mr. Mann. 

After this general look at the Kings’ childhood, Farris introduces the conflict of the book.  She explains what their neighborhood in Atlanta was like and that the King children were kept close to home and rarely encountered prejudice and segregation.  The street they lived on had a store on the other side owned by a white family.  The King backyard was a favorite play area, and the storeowners’ children played there with the King children.  They visited the local fire station together and were close playmates.  But one day when the King boys went to get them, they were told they were no longer allowed to play with the Kings.  All four boys are depicted in the illustration as dejected.  Since this is the King children’s first significant encounter with racial prejudice, their mother explains what has happened and gives hope that the world will change one day.  Martin vows to “turn the world upside down.”  From here on, the book moves swiftly from Martin’s childhood vow to his adult career as a Civil Rights leader.  The next to last page of the text shows the adult Martin making his “I Have a Dream” speech with the text “and when he was much older, my brother M.L. dreamed a dream…” followed on the last page by a picture of two vibrantly happy little girls, one black, one white, running arm in arm and holding the arms of other children that who are just out of the picture with the text “…that turned the world upside down.”

Soentpiet was specifically invited by Farris to illustrate the book.  The models for the principles were handpicked, many of them from the King family.  The interiors of the childhood home of the Kings are lovingly detailed and have an authentic 1930s feel as do the clothes.  Happiness is shown on every face (except the people who are the recipients of the King children’s pranks!) until the scene where the playmates are separated.  From then on seriousness and concern is shown on each child and adult face until the final picture of the running children who mirror King’s words that serve as the epigraph of the book, “I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today!”  The adult years of King, briefly depicted, are in black and white, perhaps suggesting newspaper shots or newsreel footage.  The vivid colors of the final picture and the motion depicted in the blowing hair and clothes of the laughing little girls have an even greater impact after this black and white interlude.  Knowing the words in the speech and seeing the picture after the text, most readers will be moved.  It is very important that children experience the pictures as well as hear the words of this book.

Appended to the end of the book is Mildred D. Johnson’s poem “You Can Be Like Martin: A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  In addition, Farris’ “Afterword” discusses her goals, and Soentpiet’s “Illustrator’s Note” discusses his involvement in the project including the models used and the research he did.  There are King family pictures of the young family.  Christine King Farris and Chris Soentpiet have produced a beautiful book.  The author’s goal was to demystify her brother.  Children may indeed identify with the youthful M.L. and his siblings, but the book does not dispel the reverence in which the leader is held.

 Review by Mary Ruth Donnelly

Illustrations & Text

Identifying Structure

Clarify and Expand Ideas


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