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Book World: Still learning from King, 50 years later – and learning more about his killer

It seems essential to reckon with Martin Luther King Jr.’s terrible death even as we celebrate his remarkable life. On Monday, we will commemorate the 89th anniversary of his birth, and in April, we will mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Two new books offer two very different but compelling portraits of King and his legacy.

Envisioned for young readers but sure to be appreciated more widely, “Martin Rising: Requiem for a King” (Scholastic, ages 13 and older) depicts King as a source of warmth and brightness on its radiant front cover. Author Andrea Davis Pinkney and her husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney, sustain and develop this idea throughout their book, paying stirring tribute to King’s personal warmth, spiritual strength and leadership. The book’s vivid poetry bursts with information as well as feeling, and the watercolor images are grounded in reality but feel elevated, on a higher plane.

The joyful opening pages of “Martin Rising” introduce King as a “sparkly-eyed” child and a loving father, but rather than surveying King’s entire life, the Pinkneys focus on why he was in Memphis in March and April of 1968. He and his closest colleagues traveled there several times to support the city’s sanitation workers, who had gone on strike in February. The workers made half of what white sanitation workers earned, and under unsafe conditions. The signs they held were “simple affirmations/of their humanity:/I AM A MAN.”

The Pinkneys’ text and paintings bring together images of nature, civil strife and religion. Nearly every poem in the book carries a date, and the emotional peak arrives on April 3, the night before King was killed. King is exhausted and feverish, but his words “roll ahead with a thunder/that only he can bring.” The text quotes the most famous of these words, and young readers will surely be struck by the power and premonition of his final speech. On a dark-hued double-page spread, the poem “Compass” tells of King’s death in a sort of call and response with the tragic facts, a voice of shocked disbelief and echoes of his speech from the night before. King persisted in his efforts despite outbreaks of violence and his own self-doubts.

In their expansive telling, the Pinkneys even give a few pages to James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to the assassination. But his motive remains unclear here, the evil act “an unsolved history.” For more solid ground, the book turns to King’s widow and her brave decision to lead the next march in Memphis. “Martin Rising” ends with a call to action: “When we speak out, seek peace, teach the truth, we all rise to a better tomorrow. And the time is now.”

“More than Abraham Lincoln, more than John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. had spent years under the continuous threat of violence,” James L. Swanson points out in his deeply researched book “Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin” (Scholastic, ages 12 and up). In addition to providing a succinct overview of King’s career and the many perils he faced – including a bombing of his home and a 1958 stabbing that nearly killed him – Swanson follows Ray from a miserable childhood through adulthood.

Carefully tracking Ray from a prison escape in 1967 to his murder of King in April 1968 and his capture in England several months later, Swanson persuasively argues that Ray was the sole perpetrator. Readers may be interested to find out that Ray tried to promote conspiracy theories about the crime, but Swanson believes Ray’s motives were much more simple: He probably committed the murder because he thought he would be paid handsomely by white supremacists. As one of his brothers once said, Ray never did anything if it wasn’t for money.

Nolan regularly reviews nonfiction children’s books for The Washington Post.