The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

The Spoken Word in Picture Books

I, Too, Am America 

Written by Langston Hughes, Illustrated by Bryan Collier

Simon and Shuster, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4424-2008-3

I Have a Dream

Written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Schwartz & Wade, 2012
ISBN 978-0-375-85887-1
All Ages 

Book Review

“I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother.” So begins one of Langston Hughes’s most famous poems, “I, Too,” and so begins Bryan Collier’s brilliantly rendered picture book interpretation. To read this picture book is to participate in a conversation that stretches across more than a century, a conversation that commenced with Whitman but gets continually revised with each new voice that joins in, from Hughes, to Collier, to each and every reader. Poems should be spoken, not simply read, and this version of Langston Hughes’s response to Whitman’s famous “I Hear America Singing” is no exception. Collier chooses the Pullman Porters of the 19thcentury to embody his interpretation of this poem’s “back story,” grounding the reader in a note that is part dedication and part promise that he will “do a complete study in picture book form that focuses solely on the life and history of the Pullman Porter.” During Reconstruction, with the rise of the railroad as a means of travel, Pullman Porters worked long hours, often serving as cook, wait staff, concierge, and cleaning person all in one.  As Hughes’s poem progresses, Collier’s visual subtext creates a parallel narrative; the Pullman Porters take the leftover newspapers and books that their wealthy white passengers leave on the train, and throw them across the cotton fields of the south, sharing news from around the country and the world to geographically isolated communities living along the tracks. Collier uses his illustrator’s note to provide readers with an interpretative lens for his work. This is exactly the kind of note that teachers, parents, and child readers need to fully access the richness of the visual metaphors, from the stars and stripes scattered through the book, to the role of the Pullman porter as a “conduit of culture,” to the discarded items on the train that “lyrically soar through space and time.” This literal and figurative multi-genre collage is an entry point into poetry and history that recognizes that we stand on the shoulders of all who came before us, that we, all of us, are America.

Book Review

“I say to you today, my friends, that even thought we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” No, this is not how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. But it was a key transitional moment in the legendary oratory, leading into the final third of the speech in which King lays out his version of the American dream. It is also where Kadir Nelson’s gorgeous paintings begin to tell their story of King’s dream in a new picture book illustration.  Throughout the book, the illustrations shift our perspective: we are above the crowds, eye-to-eye with King, back among the crowds, and also immersed in visual glimpses of the hope and possibility that the content of his speech envisions. The illustrations, while fully Nelson’s, are also at times reminiscent of iconic American art: the Hudson River School’s luminescent landscapes of the 19th century and Norman Rockwell’s visual interpretation of “The Golden Rule.” A cd of the speech is included with the book, and older readers can follow along with the full text provided at the end. Nelson’s rendering of King’s vision provides readers all ages with a new way to examine a message that so many of us know so well, have heard so often before, and have yet to bring to fruition.
Teaching Invitations
Grades 1-Up
  • Bryan’s Pictures. Do a Bryan Collier illustrator study with your students. Bring in all of his illustrated works. With younger students, you will want to read these books aloud together. Older students can work more independently in small groups. Have younger students compare and contrast his illustrations on chart paper. Have older students take those comparisons and contrasts as a starting point for discussing themes and motifs that recur in his body of work. Students might want to create their own unique layered collage paintings on one of those themes, and how it resonates in their own lives.
  • Martin’s Words. Cut up MLK’s quotes from Martin’s Big Words, a picture book written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Read the quotes aloud as students pull them out of a basket. What do they think they mean? After you have had a chance to talk about them in isolation, read aloud the book. When done, give students in small groups copies of the book to explore Collier’s illustrations up close. Next, have students read cut up excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Have students discuss what they think it means. Next, explore Nelson’s I Have a Dream. On chart paper have students list what they think MLK believed in, drawing on Collier’s and Nelson’s illustrations to support their thinking.
  • Picture Book Poems. After reading I, Too with your students, give them the opportunity to hear a variety of different poems on topics that you think are of interest to them. If possible, borrow lots of picture book poems from your school library, to immerse your students in exploring illustrated poetry. Have each child select a poem that s/he would like to turn into an original picture book, using the collage style of illustrating that Collier uses. For older students, make this a bigger challenge by exploring visual metaphors. Collier used images of the flag as a visual metaphor. Have your students create a visual metaphor for the poem they are illustrating, making sure they carry it throughout the whole book, not just a single illustration, and write about it in an illustrator’s note like Collier’s.
  • Picture Books of Langston. Read aloud other Langston Hughes poems with your students, but ones that specifically have illustrated versions (see below). Ask your students to interpret the poem based first on just the text. Next, read aloud the picture book versions. On chart paper, record your students’ responses to each book, and then have them compare and contrast the similarities and differences between them. You may then want to have them find a Langston Hughes poem of their own to illustrate in either a single painting or collage or a picture book version.
Grades 3-8
  • Martin’s Big Words. While Nelson uses only about one third of King’s speech, there are many rich vocabulary words that your students may not know (i.e. exalted, hew, jangling, discords). Use the picture book as an introduction to these words and have students create illustrated “flash cards.” As an extra challenge, you could pull out words from other portions of the speech. Finally, have students use at least two new words in a piece of writing they are working on or a discussion that you are having in class.
  • Completing Bryan’s Research. At the very beginning of I, Too, Bryan Collier promises his reader that in the future, he will write a whole picture book telling the story of the Pullman Porters. Who were they? Using the variety of resources listed below, have your students research these men. Take advantage of all of the rich historical connections you can make to other events and political and social movements of the 19thand early 20th centuries by dividing your students into specialized research groups. Have your students create their own nonfiction picture books. Perhaps you can even digitize them and send them to Collier, to help his future research.
Grades 5-Up
  • Delivering the Spoken Word. Readers can listen to the authors of each book read their work. Below, you will find links to Hughes reading “I, Too,” while Nelson’s book comes with a cd of King’s speech. There are many ways for your students to consider the effectiveness of each author’s delivery. You could begin with the just the words of the poem or speech, and then move to the picture book versions, and then listen to the spoken word. Or, start with the spoken word. You might want to have students practice with how they deliver the spoken word first with the shorter poem and then with parts of King’s speech, and only after that listen to the authors. Be sure to have your students monitor their thinking with each version.
  • Whitman and Hughes. Have your students read “I Hear America Singing” and then have them read “I, Too” as a later response. Explore some of the resources below to learn more about Hughes and the recurring messages within his work that were inspired by and in response to Whitman’s work. You might want to have your students create their own individual contemporary responses to “I Hear America Singing.”
Grades 7-Up
  • Visualizing a Speech. In his illustrator’s note, Bryan Collier talks about the “eager hands and minds ready to absorb whatever knowledge they can.” Ask the eager minds in your classroom to read a speech. You might have students exploring speeches from particular times and places. You might want to have students look at the speeches delivered by the two presidential candidates at the conventions this summer. You can embed this in other work you’re doing or allow students to find a speech, historic or contemporary, that resonates with them. Like the earlier suggestion of creating a picture book version of a single poem, have your students create a picture book version of what they believe is the most critical part of the speech, as Kadir Nelson has done in I Have a Dream. If time does not permit, have your students take a photograph or create a single image that captures their sense of what is most important. Make sure they write an illustrator’s note to ensure that they are explaining their choices. You can model the note on Collier’s note for I, Too.
Critical Literacy
  • MLK’s Writing Process. Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther King did not use the lines “I have a dream” for the first time on August 28, 1963. King used the message in other speeches that year, working through his ideas and writing style. At one point, he even references this process in a legal deposition, submitted as part of his efforts to restrict illegal reproduction of the speech. After reading Nelson’s book, use the resources below to examine King’s writing and revising. Have your students listen to his speech at Cabo Hall in Detroit, and then listen to the August 28thspeech, and then have them read his deposition, including on the National Archives site. What changed? What stayed the same? How was King working his message in these different iterations?
  • Access to Literacy. In Collier’s illustrator’s note, he discusses the ways in which the Pullman Porter’s provided blacks living in rural isolation access to print. Have your students explore people’s access to print and digital texts in the past and present. Perhaps you want to start with the history of your own community. Where did people get their news? Did some people have greater access to information than others? Why? Does that still hold true today? Does everyone in your community have access to high speed internet services? Does your community still have a local daily newspaper? Why or not? You might want to split students into small groups to explore past and present access to information.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Pullman Porter Museum
Pullman Porter History, “Lives on the Move,” National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute
Pullman Porters: From Servitude to Civil Rights, WTTW, PBS Station
Langston Hughes Reading “I, Too,” Smithsonian Folkways Recording, The Poetry Archive
Langston Hughes Page, American Academy of Poets
Langston Hughes Page, The Poetry Foundation
Langston Hughes Page, America’s Story, Library of Congress
“Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class,” NPR Morning Edition
Langston Hughes Letter, NAACP Collection, Library of Congress
Langston Hughes Papers. James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
The King Center
Martin Luther King Jr., Wise Guide, Library of Congress
Martin Luther King Jr., National Archives Administration
Digitized Film Reels of The March on Washington, National Archives YouTube Channel
The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University
“I Have a Dream Speech” Origins Analysis
Cobo Hall, Detroit “I Have a Dream” Speech
Bolden, T. (2007). MLK: Journey of a king. New York: Abrams.
  • This comprehensive complete chapter-length biography is chock fill of photographs and primary source documents perfect for deep exploration by middle grade readers.
Farris, C.K. (2008). March on! The day my brother Martin changed the world. Ill. by L. Lad. New York: Scholastic.
  • Written by MLK’s sister Christine, this picture book chronicles the work behind the scenes planning and enacting the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Hughes, L. (2009). My people. Ill. by C.R. Smith, Jr. New York: Atheneum.
A picture book photo essay of Langston Hughes’s poem, “My People.”
Hughes, L. (2009). The Negro speaks of rivers. Ill. by E.B. Lewis. New York: Disney/Jump at the Sun Books.
  • Illustrator E.B. Lewis has created a series of water color paintings to illustrate the Hughes’s famous poem.
Myers, W.D. (2004). I’ve seen the promised land: The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ill. By L. Jenkins. New York: Harper Collins.
  • This picture book biography for the intermediate and middle grades focuses MLK’s advocacy work within the Civil Rights Movement.
Perdomo, W. (2002). Visiting Langston. Ill. by B. Collier. New York: Holt.
  • This fictional picture book captures the excitement of a young girl visiting the home of her hero.
Rappaport, D. (2001). Martin’s big words: The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ill. By B. Collier. New York: Jump at the Sun/Hyperion.
  • This picture book cradle-to-grave verse biography highlights direct quotes from MLK’s speeches and letters, creating a parallel narrative of his life. The quotes further stand out to young readers because they are written in a larger font with colored letters.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.