Thursday, May 22, 2014

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song

In my focus on comparing and contrasting, this time I’m turning to books that use a compare/contrast structure within the book.  I’ve written about comparing whole books to each other including biographies and books about the civil rights movements, which falls under Common Core’s ELA Reading Anchor Standard 9. Looking at structure within a book addresses Standard 5: “Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.”  It varies by grade, of course.

One of the easiest structures for elementary school students to analyze is that of compare and contrast.  Luckily, there are some terrific books to choose from.  As per my previous post, graphic organizers from Venn diagrams to more sophisticated compare/contrast charts are an effective tool to help organize thoughts during and after reading.

One recent book that uses the compare/contrast structure beautifully is Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (Little, Brown, 2013), illustrated by Brian Pinkney.  It’s structured so that readers naturally see the similarities and differences between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahalia Jackson.  Even the sub-title emphasizes a difference, “His Words, Her Song.” The text itself opens with a similarity: “They were each born with the gift of gospel,” which Martin  preached and Mahalia sang, separately, in churches around the country (the text uses first names).  They both grew up surrounded by segregation, which led to their commitment to civil rights.  They came together for the Montgomery bus boycott and, the climax of the book, the 1963 March on Washington. 

At first the illustrations place the two leaders on separate pages, but they come together in an illustration after Martin has heard Mahalia sing and knows their talents would re-enforce each other. Readers must turn the book vertically for this illustration that stretches across two pages, emphasizing the importance of the alliance.  Readers must turn the book one more time for Dr. King’s speech at the March.

A note in the back matter from Brian Pinkney titled “Painting Parallels” explains how he used the art to reflect the text: “I contrasted Martin and Mahalia by employing blues and greens for Martin, reds and oranges for Mahalia.  Purples and magentas come into the mix when Martin and Mahalia blend their talents and tenacity.”

By looking and reading/listening closely, children will find those similarities and differences—and more--in the text and pictures. Once they’ve identified the structure and looked at the details, questions to discuss include: Why did the author and illustrator structure the book this way?  What does the structure emphasize?  What other structures could they have used?  Knowing that the Pinkneys are married makes it all the more interesting to think about their decisions and how they arrived at them (over the dinner table?) since not all authors and illustrators meet or even talk about a book, from what I'm told.  

A wonderful follow-up is to watch and listen to Mahalia Jackson's singing at the March (, and Dr. King’s iconic speech (

Here are some other books that compare two people effectively, which could be paired with Martin & Mahalia or studied individually for structure:

 Michelson, Richard. Illustrated by Raúl Colón. As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March toward Freedom. 2008.  This would work especially well to compare with Martin & Mahalia. It’s a moving story about a rabbi who gave his support to the cause of civil rights and became friends with Dr. King.


Barton, Chris.  Illustrated by Tony Persiani. The Day-Glo Brothers. 2009.  As the title indicates, this book focuses on two brothers.  It shows how their different talents and interests complemented each other, leading to the invention of day-glo colors.


Kerley, Barbara.  Illustrated by Ed Fotheringham.  Those Rebels, John and Tom.  2012.  Here’s another book that effectively uses illustrations as well as text to emphasize differences and similarities.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate how the structure, the illustrations and the text work together to emphasize the message. Thanks for another very useful post.