The role of Martin Luther King, Jr. in your novel is so central that the title is named after him. What made Martin Luther King, Jr. such a predominant theme in your work?
MT: The inspiration to include Martin Luther King Jr. as a character in my novel came about by accident. I was writing the scene where Adam and Sally visit the blacklisted author Gladys McKinley, and her housekeeper, Honey, hears Gladys talking about her friend, Martin Luther King Jr. I knew the kids in the novel needed a reading list for their English class at school, so I used The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a subtheme to what I knew would later be a statement about the Vietnam War. Racial prejudice was prevalent in Mark Twain’s time, in 1967 when my book takes place, and, unfortunately, is still so today. Once Gladys tells Honey that she will take her to meet Martin Luther King, I knew then that the remainder of the book would involve Dr. King himself and his interaction with the kids and how they would be inspired by him.
What do you think kids should know about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work today and how does your novel illustrate this?
MT: By the time my novel takes place, in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. had developed his message beyond civil rights and racial equality. He had become committed to fighting for a world in which there was peace, as well as economic equality among all people regardless of the color of their skin. He even advocated for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, which I cite in the novel. I would like kids to know that Dr. King was a pacifist who spoke out against the Vietnam War. He wanted America’s working people to have a decent, living wage. He was in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated.
Political activism is on the rise today. In The Martin Luther King Mitzvah, kids protest against the Vietnam War and engage in marches outside their middle school. What message does this convey to kids growing up today?
MT: War should be the last resort, when diplomacy has failed. There is not enough diplomacy in today’s political world. I would like kids to know that in a democracy, every citizen has the right, indeed, the duty to speak out when he or she sees injustice. In this way, kids can contribute to making the world a better place.
Mathew Tekulsky is the author of Backyard Bird Photography (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014) as well as The Art of Hummingbird Gardening, The Art of Butterfly Gardening, and Making Your Own Gourmet Coffee Drinks. He is also the author of the work of middle-grade fiction, The Martin Luther King Mitzvah.