In her latest picture book, Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song, Andrea Davis Pinkney explores the power of words and music and how they were used as forces of change during America’s civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke the gospel. Mahalia Jackson sang it. And they joined together at the historic March on Washington to make a nonviolent plea for equality.

Andrea’s well-researched account, laid out with rhythm and passion, is paired with the swirling and symbolic illustrations of Brian Pinkney, who happens to be her husband. Here, Andrea and I chat about her research, collaborating with Brian, the state of so-called multicultural books, and more.

What surprised you the most, if anything, about the friendship between Martin and Mahalia? 

I was surprised by the fact that they were friends. I stumbled upon this fact when I was doing research for another book.

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What also struck me is that there were so many similarities between them. Both grew up in the gospel tradition of the black church, and as children, each came to learn that their respective voices packed a lot of power—Mahalia’s singing in the choir when she was a girl and Martin speaking from the pulpit when he was still a boy—that could inspire people.  Martin & Mahalia

As my research unfolded, I learned that Mahalia was at Martin’s side through several pivotal events of the civil rights movement. When it came time to prepare for the March on Washington, Martin asked Mahalia Jackson to attend the march with him. He encouraged Mahalia to sing a Negro spiritual before he was to speak. Though the march was a nonviolent protest, there was a crowd of 250,000 marchers that needed settling. As Mahalia’s brass-and-butter contralto voice delivered the song “I’ve Been ’Buked,” the marchers completely quieted. That’s when Martin knew he could begin his remarks, which started off with him reading from a prepared script.

It was his friend Mahalia who leaned over and said, “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” And he did. Thanks to the prompting of Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr. departed from his script and delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech as we know it today. This was the most surprising tidbit of information, which became the climax of the story, and speaks to the importance of a having a good friend who can nudge you at just the right moment.

The "AMEN TIMES TEN!" spread blows me away. Do you have a favorite piece of art from the book? Did you get to see the artwork as Brian created it? 

I never know what Brian will do, once he gets my manuscripts. His studio is miles away from our home. I don’t ever visit, or peek in the windows, or saunter through the neighborhood, hoping to somehow catch a glimpse of his sketches or paintings.

There’s a good reason for this. Just as Brian isn’t looking over my shoulder as I write (that would annoy me to no end and stifle my creative process), I’m not pestering him about the artwork or giving him my opinions. An artist needs his space. Brian always comes up with visual concepts that wouldn’t happen if I were whispering in his ear.

For example, a dove—the universal symbol of peace—appears on each spread of the book, sometimes obviously, other times not-so-obviously, but hidden in plain view. Inspired by the work of social realist painters, Brian weaves inspirational phrases into his compositions. Also, the book’s color palette has a very deliberate pattern to it. The paintings that depict Martin use greens and blues; Mahalia’s spreads are rendered in warm hues of orange, reds, and yellows. In the illustrations showing Martin and Mahalia together, Brian has drawn on the principals of color theory. When combined, blues and reds make purples.

So—in the book’s scenes of Martin and Mahalia using their voices for the same purpose—purples and magentas are used to represent the mixing of their colors and the blending of their talents. My favorite painting in the book is one that shows this. It depicts Mahalia and Martin in profile with their powerful words connecting them. The dove appears on this spread, but many people can’t find it right away. It’s fun to watch children read the book and, after looking and looking for the dove, finally say, “Oh—now I see it!” 

  Martin & Mahalia Spread

I wonder if you, as someone who has written about black men and women, freedom fighters, and so much more, would like to weigh in on what Lee & Low asked children's lit folks back in June: Why hasn't the number of multicultural books increased in the last 18 years?

There are so many talented and committed professionals in publishing houses working hard on behalf of multicultural books. I’ve been blessed to work with many of these people.  

The answer to this question is complicated—and simple. I’m speaking strictly as an author here, and these opinions are mine alone.  

I think of it as a math equation:

More agents of color + more publishers of color + more editors of color + more art directors of color + more sales, marketing and publicity people of color = more multicultural books being acquired, art directed, promoted, publicized, strategized and represented within the walls of publishing companies, which will, in turn, increase representation and entice more agents, publishers, art directors, editors, marketers, salespeople, writers and artists of color to join the fold, to make these books a top priority, etc., etc., etc., etc.  

Whew! It’s dizzying. But it’s true. Our publishing community needs more people of color working in publishing houses at all levels and in all departments to 1) hire people of color; 2) mentor and retain those people; 3) acquire books; 4) get behind books and nurture the talent that creates them so they’re encouraged to keep writing and illustrating.

It’s that simple. But it’s not easy.

The complicated part is that each of these steps involves an unrelenting and ongoing commitment by our entire publishing community. Despite the discouraging statistics, strides are being made with the tremendous work of organizations, such as the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Initiative, which is taking proactive steps to solve the complicated multicultural equation. To learn more, visit cbcdiversity.com.

What's next for you?

Brian and I are collaborating on a narrative nonfiction follow-up to our book, Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. And I have a novel in the works.

MARTIN & MAHALIA: HIS WORDS, HER SONG. Copyright © 2013 by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Brian Pinkney. Artwork reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.