Thursday, January 7, 2010

The world has changed (in part)

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s older sister, Christine King Farris, has written a picture book about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She herself wasn't there, but her description of the events of the day in March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World is vivid and engaging. The audiobook is (I believe) the narration of the video that was selected for the 2009 Andrew Carnegie Medal.

I like the feeling of anticipation that this book arouses. The people arriving from all over, Reverend King working all night on his speech, he and the six other civil rights leaders gathered in their blindingly white shirt sleeves preparing for the day, and finally, finally, King's famous oration (which was evidently, not a bit like the one he had prepared). Through stirring music and a skilled reading from Lynn Whitfield, a listener easily enters the spirit of that day. Unlike some other picture book DVDs reproduced for audio, I did not feel like I was missing anything by not watching the video (I still had the book in my lap).

Whitfield reads the book at that slower pace called for when reading picture books, but her narration varies in pace and emotion. She knows how to build those feelings of anticipation and excitement with her voice. There is a beautiful moment where the narrative includes a phrase from a hymn spontaneously sung by the participants and Whitfield simply changes the rhythm of her speech and begins to sing it.

This audiobook includes music and crowd sounds that underlie the narrative. It burbles up upon occasion, perfectly. A moment in the text reveals that Martin urged Mahalia Jackson to sing to calm the crowd before his speech, and what must be her voice (or a very good imitation of her distinctive style of singing... no one is credited) emerges beautifully singing I Been 'Buked.

This effect is repeated once King begins speaking. The book's text includes just a little of King's words: "Free at last ...," and now it's King's voice that comes up under the reading of the text, almost like an echo. It is such an effective you-are-there technique, almost goosebump producing.

The audiobook concludes with comments from Christine Farris herself. She augments the content of the book in a pleasant, Southern-tinged voice. She's kind of subdued, though, so I think watching her (as well as listening) might be a little more interesting. The audiobook has three tracks -- the book without page-turn signals, the book with page-turn signals, and then the piece with Farris. Young listeners who don't need the page-turn signal in order to read along, might simply stop listening once the book is over, never reaching the opportunity to listen to Dr. King's sister (one of just a few close to the organizers who is still alive?) share her memories.

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